Although I’d read Oyeyemi’s first novel a while ago it was Eva’s review at A Striped Armchair which encouraged me to read this one, so thank you Eva! Also, I used to live in Dover and was an undergaduate at Cambridge... And I enjoyed it even more than The Icarus Girl, so much that I’ve just ordered Mr Fox.
I know that lots of bloggers have written about White is for Witching, so I’ll only give a very brief outline of the plot. Miranda Silver, Cambridge undergraduate and sufferer from an eating disorder called pica, disappears from her home in Dover after an argument with her twin brother, Eliot:
Miranda Silver is in Dover, in the ground beneath her house.
Her throat is blocked with a slice of apple
(to stop her speaking words that may betray her)
her ears are filled with earth
(to keep her from hearing sounds that will confuse her)
her eyes are closed, but
her heart thrums hard like hummingbird wings.
Does she remember me at all I miss her I miss the way her eyes are the same shade of grey no matter the strength or weakness of the light I miss the taste of her I
see her in my sleep, a star planted seed-deep, her arms out-stretched, her fists clenched, her black dress clinging to her like mud.
She chose this as the only way to fight the soucouyant.
is one interpretation of what has happened to her. At least three narrators tell their versions of her: Eliot, Ore, whom Miranda meets at university, and the house in Dover; each of them in some way wants to possess Miranda (I think there’s a fourth narrator, Miranda herself, using the third person because she’s so dissociated... I couldn’t believe that the house was capable of those narratives which gave Miranda’s point of view, because they lacked the spite and racism of 39 Barton Road, but they might be). It’s an unsettling read in many ways. The voices often switch abruptly, we move back and forth in time and through planes of reality – for the house in Dover, home of four generations of women from the same family, is possessed by a spirit or alive, somehow created by Anna Good (‘you are a mother of mine, you gave me a kind of life, mine, the kind of alive that I am’), who was Miranda’s great-grandmother and is also the ‘goodlady’. Where Anna ends and the house begins is unclear.The book is full of alternative versions of events and allusions to fairy tales and folklores – lost mothers, doubles, malignant apples, roses, soucouyants, blood-filled shoes – and to other texts – Perrault, Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Poe, Hoffman, Melville, le Fanu (and on the book’s website Oyeyemi says that she wrote it ‘feverishly’ after reading Dracula). All this makes it very layered and ambiguous – what’s ‘real’, what’s imagined? How much are each of the narrators withholding or changing? How should we interpret the roses? How read the allusions? What exactly is the evil in the house? – and very open to different interpretations, which I like.
Plastic was usually very satisfying. A fifty-millimetre wad of it was tough to chew away from the main body of the strip, but with steady labour, sucking and biting, it curved between the teeth like an extension of the gum, and the thick, bitter-sweet oils in it streamed down her throat for hours, so long she sometimes forgot and thought her body was producing it, like saliva.
Miranda’s pica drives her to eat what we wouldn’t normally consider food. Pica can be triggered by maternal deprivation among other things, and it’s certainly after Lily’s death that Miranda’s sufferings begin. There’s a sense also that she has inherited it through her maternal line. Through the book Miranda seems to be taken over by the past as the house (or Anna) tightens its grip on her. She is repelled by nourishing food, only chalk, plastic, soil; increasingly there’s a sense that she consumes these because she is afraid of what she really wants to feed on. Ore tells Miranda about the Caribbean soucouyant, an old woman who slips out of her wrinkled skin by night and in the form of a ball of flames flies out to suck the blood from her victims:
I told Miranda about the girl who killed the soucouyant. [...] ‘She saw where the soucouyant put her skin when she walked in her true form. Her lover the moon told her: “If you cared to, you could kill the soucouyant. Treat her skin with pepper and salt. How it buns her, how it scratches her. Only the night gives her her power, and if she is unable to re-enter her body by sunrise, she cannot live.” [...] So the girl reached right inside the old woman skin and rubbed salt and pepper all along it [...] She hid and watched as the ball of flame returned to its tree hollow at dawn, searching for its skin [...] She watched as the soucouyant, having no other option, rushed to join her flame with that of the rising sun.’
[...] ‘Thank you,’ [Miranda] said. ‘That was just the thing.’
‘The girl doesn’t get away. It’s not a story about her getting away. She was born free.’
‘The soucouyant gets away though. Doesn’t she count as a girl?’
I drew back. ‘No she doesn’t,’ I said. ‘She is a monster. She dies.’
‘All monsters deserve to die.’
(Illustration of soucouyant found here; unfortunately I can’t read the artist’s name and am not sure of the original source)
If the soucouyant drinks too much blood from a victim, that victim will die and may become a soucouyant herself. Is Anna the soucouyant, her skin the house? Is she feeding on Miranda and turning her into a soucouyant too? Vampirism is often connected with desire: after flirting with Jalil in the pub Miranda encounters her foremothers seated round a banquet table with Jalil as Miranda’s dinner, and she fantasises about biting and eating Ore, who physically dwindles as their relationship progresses as if she’s being drained. Miranda frequently worries about being good, perfect even, and perhaps her desires threaten her need to define herself as a good person until she fears she is turning into a monster. But who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’ in this novel is not always easy to pin down. Not even a twin can be trusted.
Another way of reading some vampire stories is that they reflect colonial societies, where the colonising outsiders feed upon the labours of the colonised. The very title of White is for Witching draws attention to its racial aspects. Immigrants in Dover are being murdered, and while Miranda is accused of the attacks it seems the racist Anna is the culprit. From the 1950s onwards people from former colonies began to move to Britain in large numbers and in the novel the racism, stabbings of immigrants and vampirism seem to be a response to what’s perceived as reverse colonialism, the colonisers being colonised. Luc, in employing immigrants at low wages, is expressing this in overtly economic terms.
There’s so much more to this novel: it’s a haunted house story, a fairy tale, an exploration of mental illness and its effects on those around them, and in its sum something more mysterious than any of these labels can suggest.
(Helen Oyeyemi, photograph from her author page at Picador)