No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, September 04, 2009

#64: White is for Witching -- Helen Oyeyemi

I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home, I'm the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read -- I tell you where you are. Don't turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don't look. (p.68)


A powerful and disturbing novel of pica, twins, race, malevolence and myth. Amongst other things ...

Miranda Silver and her twin brother Eliot live with their father in their dead mother's old house in Dover, now an upmarket B&B. They are white, privileged, middle-class teenagers. Miranda spends a long time off school, ill: suffers from pica, and eats strange things, chalk, dirt, plastic. Her brother tries helplessly to connect with her. Then Miranda goes to university (Cambridge) and meets Ore, a Nigerian girl who falls in love with Miranda -- or thinks she does.

Miri is the older twin. Maybe she has seen things that craned their necks to look at her and then withdrew before I was born, thinking that to consider one of us is to consider both. (p.7)

Miranda's father Luc is a keen cook, trying to tempt his daughter to eat real food. Eliot starts trying to make some distance between himself and his twin. MIranda is attacked by a group of Kosovan girls who hold her responsible for attacks on boys in their community. There's a woman in the garden covering her face, a black couple staying in the house who never go out, and some indication that Sade, their housekeeper, is not just a housekeeper. Also, the house has a narrative voice.

Oyeyemi's language is powerful and poetic: she writes Miranda as an often-unlikeable but oddly sympathetic character, and the other voices in the book (Eliot, Ore, Luc, the house) are distinctive without pastiche.

There is a strong undercurrent concerning the relationships between members of a family -- between twins, and especially between mothers and daughters. I wholly sympathise with Miranda's urge not to be 'herself plus all her mothers'.

I was (from various comments and reviews) expecting a difficult, meandering novel about race: this is not it. Race (specifically race in Britain, with the subtleties of class and immigration and first-, second-, third-generation) is a major theme but not in obvious or apparent ways, at least for the first half of the book. (Later, when Ore's narrative, and her cultural heritage, take centre stage, it's more explicit.) And I found the plot, the events of the novel, straightforward though not simplistic.

white is for witching, a colour to be worn so that all other colours can enter you, so that you may use them. At a pinch, cream will do. (p.108)

There is a great deal of whiteness in this book, from Dover's cliffs to the chalk that Miranda eats to her surname (Silver) to the bleach ... There is also a great deal of darkness, and darkness holds some of the answers.

Having borrowed this novel, I can't go back and attempt to find a pattern to the idiosyncratic paragraph indentation: I noticed that some first lines were indented, others not, but I don't know what (if anything) this signifies.

Will definitely look out for more by Oyeyemi.

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