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White is for Witching

by Helen Oyeyemi

Walls, words, a mother’s love or a twin brother’s – these comforting certainties turn treacherous and unknowable in Helen Oyeyemi’s startling third novel.

After Lily Silver’s death, her family – husband Luc and twins Eliot and Miranda – are adrift in their Dover house, which Luc runs as a B&B. Madness and mysterious disappearance run through the Silver female line, along with pica, an “appetite for non-food items”, and it’s Miranda who is most mentally and physically fragile. She refuses Luc’s carefully prepared gourmet food, choosing instead chalk, and “the thick, bittersweet oils” in plastic spoons. Her gradual, lonely disappearing-act is at the centre of this astonishing, deeply sinister book.

To make things worse, the house itself, which Lily inherited from her grandmother, is not so much haunted as possessed, and by an evil racist hatred. The building’s malevolent voice confides in us as it creates hallucinatory punishments for those who threaten the status quo: “we are on the inside, and we have to say together, and we absolutely cannot have anyone else.” Will Miranda escape the house, or will she be consumed - along with the generations of women who lived there before her?

Oyeyemi pulls off a multitude of literary pyrotechnics in this book – for example changing voice in mid-sentence without losing pace or confusing the reader. She also manages to make her story simultaneously spooky and horrifying, yet touching and completely humane. As with even the best firework display, there is the occasional damp squib. I sometimes felt that the male characters were just sympathetic bit-players, and when the action shifts from Dover to Cambridge in the second part of the book, the narrative tension dissipates. Ultimately, though, this served to make the coagulation of horror in the novel’s disturbing last scenes all the more affecting.

This is a stunning novel by a phenomenally talented young writer, that recalls Alice Through the Looking Glass and Arundahati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Highly recommended.

See a short video about WHITE IS FOR WITCHING. It is published in hardback in June.

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