Hard to grasp the plot in this confused novel

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

A few years ago, Helen Oyeyemi was hailed as one of the future stars of UK contemporary literature, having written her first novel The Icarus Girl to great acclaim whilst studying for her A-levels. Now she’s in her twenties and this is her third …

There’s a lot going on in this book. The Silver family are still in mourning after mother Lily’s death; Lily was a photographer and was caught in a spray of gunfire in Haiti. Luc can’t speak about it, twins Miranda and Eliot suffer in their own ways, and the house – which has been in Lily’s family for generations misses her too.

Luc, a cookery writer has turned the large rambling house in Dover with its creaks and groans into a B&B and this keeps him occupied – too busy to spend much time with his teenage children who are preparing to go to university. Miri has pica – a condition where she feels compelled to eat chalk, and she spent her 17th birthday in a clinic. Behind all of them is always the house. It is suffused with the spirits of Lily, her mother and her grandmother. Miranda is the one who really sees them, although everyone, including the housekeepers and paying guests, can sense the influence of something alive in the house that moves things, has a temperamental life, and symbolically ripens apples in the garden in the dead of winter.

I found it confusing to decide whether the main theme of the novel was Miri, her mental health and coming of age as she goes to university where she falls in love with Ore, or whether the house was the real star – not wanting to let go of its line of women owners. Concentrating on one of these could have made a much stronger novel. The house and its spirits merely made its occupants uncomfortable rather than inducing any real ‘Jamesian’ terror. Miri is a rather unsympathetic character, which makes it difficult to care about her state of mind and incipient anorexia, whereas Eliot was underused – more could have been made of them being twins.

As the rather complex multiple viewpoints of the beginning gradually coalesce into one voice, the book’s second half pays dividends for having struggled with the first, as we met the new housekeeper, Sade and the likeable Ore. There were many good elements to this story, but they were only assembled into an average novel. (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme).

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4 thoughts on “Hard to grasp the plot in this confused novel

  1. I am struggling with the first half of this. I keep putting it down to read lighter stuff. I will keep trying with it after your review.

  2. It did take its time to get going, and the format didn't help in the beginning – I liked the second half better, but the whole could have been much more.

  3. Hmm it does sound interesting and the kind of book I would like, but it sounds like it came out average which is a shame. I do love the cover though.

  4. Rhinoa – The cover is lovely – you probably can't see clearly but the trees are full of apples, angels, skulls and keys. Unfortunately in my proof copy it doesn't say who designed it.

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