By Helen Oyeyemi
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino
This is the most curious book, a modern-day fairytale with as much evil and magic as anything by the Brothers Grimm. It’s narrated by a chorus of voices and is set in a haunted, malevolent house.
The story opens with several disjointed, poetic passages that make it clear something bad has happened to the central character, Miranda Silver. Oyeyemi then introduces us to the Silver family and their mysterious house on the cliffs of Dover. There is Miranda, mentally fragile and with a condition called pica which means she’s driven to eat things like chalk and plastic rather than food; her twin Eliot, handsome and precocious; their father Luc DuFresne, a foodie; and their mother Lily, a photographer, who has been killed while on assignment in Haiti.
But it is the creepy old house itself that has the greatest presence – it even narrates sections of the story. The Silver family have inherited it from Lily’s grandma and Luc is running it as a B&B although his staff and guests have a tendency to take fright and flee.
Only Miranda seems to have noticed there is anything unusual about the house – she sees the strange winter apples that grow in its garden and dreams of the ghosts in its walls. For a while she escapes by going to study at Cambridge University where she falls in love with a beautiful black girl called Ore. But Ore too has her ghosts and Miranda is tugged back inexorably to the increasingly malign 29 Barton Road.
This novel has such a timeless fairytale feel that when the contemporary world intrudes - with things like mobile phones for instance – it’s slightly jolting. And Oyeyemi doesn’t exactly tell the story, she sort of dances round it with her odd pass-the-parcel structure. But there is something utterly mesmerising about her writing. She suffuses her story with menace and mystery.
White is For Witching is one of those love-it or hate-it novels. The literal-minded are going to struggle with the mazes Oyeyemi creates. But fans of the Gothic-style will appreciate the story’s chilling deliciousness. I’m in the latter camp and loved every moment of being lost in it.