I've been rather busy this past week (finishing the most recent instalment of the Wheel of Time series; I know it's wrong but I mostly quite enjoyed it...), so while I sort out a full-length post, here is a reprint of a review I first published in Vector magazine, last year.
Helen Oyeyemi's White is for Witching (2009) is a subtle little gem of a ghost story, written in a sparsely elegant style and paced as a page-turner whose mystery lies mostly in its characters’ fears and flaws. It centres on a haunted bed and breakfast in Dover, and the people – living and dead – whose lives are entwined with the house, and with each other.
The impressionistic prologue is reminiscent of Kelly Link. It begins with the story’s end and features a trio of first-person narrators, none of whom can give a straight answer. Urged by her brother to talk about their missing mother, central character Miranda offers surreal details: “Lily’s favourite films have a lot of tap-dancing and a little story. Lily slides towards the colour red like it’s a magnet”. The rest of the story is told in a more accessible way, but in its treatment of the characters and their histories it continues to resist simple readings and neat endings. Oyeyemi’s writing is all about nuance.
The house, of course, looms large in the story, both as a place of incident – a stalled lift, confusing corridors, extra rooms that appear from nowhere – and as a discomforting physical presence: “All the light in the house was subterranean, as if the place had been built out of mildew”. It is not simply exaggeration to say that the house is a character; it is, in fact, one of the book’s narrators, addressing the characters (“I’m the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read – I tell you where you are”) and plotting how to trap or expel them, according to its preferences. And it does have preferences; although it is never directly stated, the house and its spirits have a marked hostility to people who aren’t (white) British, chasing away tourists and migrant workers, tormenting Ore, Miranda’s black friend and sometime girlfriend from university, and intermittently toying with the idea of bumping off Miranda’s French father. The focus of its attention, and the novel’s, is Miranda herself, whose possible possession by the house’s spirits manifests as an eating disorder and episodes of amnesiac fugue. And she is, it seems, not the first woman in her family to be thus worn down.
As the house wages its slow campaign to take over Miranda, the sense of dread grows; but this isn’t a one-note book. Offsetting the darkness is a surprising amount of humour and even a little romance, particularly when Miranda becomes a student at Cambridge and some of the narrating duties are taken up by the dry-witted Ore. Ore’s adoptive family are not exactly the most right-on bunch on the planet, but they provide a stable, loving contrast to Miranda’s home life, and offer amusement besides (of Ore’s cousin, grown into teenage attractiveness: “Nothing tawdry, she just sits there and quietly smoulders, as if she’d quite like to be undressed”). Recommended.