Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"White is for Witching" by Helen Oyeyemi

by Helen Oyeyemi
Format: Paperback, 256 pages
Publisher: Picador
Review copy received through the courtesy of the publisher, Picador

High on the cliffs near Dover, the Silver family is reeling from the loss of Lily, mother of twins Eliot and Miranda, and beloved wife of Luc. Miranda misses her with particular intensity. Their mazy, capricious house belonged to her mother’s ancestors, and to Miranda, newly attuned to spirits, newly hungry for chalk, it seems they have never left. Forcing apples to grow in winter, revealing and concealing secret floors, the house is fiercely possessive of young Miranda. Joining voices with her brother and her best friend Ore, it tells her story: haunting in every sense, and a spine-tingling tribute to the power of magic, myth and memory. Miri I conjure you . . .

I have heard only good things about Helen Oyeyemi and her works, but I didn’t get the chance to read any of her novels until now. Therefore when I got a copy of “White is for Witching” I was interested to see what attracted those praises.

When I opened “White is for Witching” and read the first page I was intrigued and captivated. I was intrigued by a beginning that is very much confusing and captivated by a language that is very much poetic. I cannot honestly say that I understood the prologue of the Helen Oyeyemi’s novel, it is cryptic and bizarre, but it did a wonderful job, making me jump to the next chapters in search of its decipher. Still, I have to admit that I’ve got a little help in passing that first paragraph and it was thanks to Helen Oyeyemi’s language. Throughout the novel I was attracted by the images crafted by Helen Oyeyemi with the help of words and more than once I wondered if she is not a witch herself, giving life to her phrases. This way I began to believe that the prologue is truly intended this way, because the rest of the novel will lift the confusion veil, with the epilogue making the best from the prologue.

Helen Oyeyemi explores issues of sexuality and racism in her story and manages to build interesting characters, with powerful personalities. But I have to admit that “White is for Witching” is a love and hate affair for me. I did love the language and the images that are born from words, but the story is a different matter. Most of the time the plot doesn’t seem to move and for more than half of its length it looks like it doesn’t have a goal to reach. I also have to admit that for this reason I almost stop reading the novel when I reached its half. But, from the second half Helen Oyeyemi introduces a new voice in the story and I hoped that from that point forward the plot would start to advance. The new voice throws a new light on the story, but it proved to move the plot only slightly in the end. It truly helped me finish the novel, but I am not exactly sure that I am fully satisfied with this fact.

I am not always looking for action driven stories, but at this moment I need more than just beautifully written novels. It is true that Helen Oyeyemi is a very talented writer and she deserves her praises, but for me “White is for Witching” worked only on one level and in the end left me feeling unsatisfied.


Unknown said...

I can't say I was a huge fan of this one either:


So you're not alone, Mihai!

Harry Markov said...

Huh, I may like this one, if this one level is developed appropriately and the language is as fantastic as you say it is.

I am patient, when it comes to such novels.

Mihai A. said...

Niall, I read your excellent review and it seems that we share the same opinions in general. I am curious about "The Icarus Girl" because I heard some good things about that one too, but I am not so sure now :)

Harry, I am quite patient too, but I am not certain that I want to repeat this experience. No matter how the language is :)

Liviu said...

I actually loved this novel and thought it one of the best mainstream books I've read in 2009 - while it has ghosts and such it's not really sff, but literary fiction - but I agree that if you look for a plot, you will not find it here.

Nevertheless the writing and characters carried this one beautifully for me

Mihai A. said...

Liviu, I know, I read your wonderful review too. Unfortunately, I look for more plot in my readings and I am not sure if I can sacrifice a non-present plot only for wonderful writing and interesting characters :)