The Austin Chronicle

New in Fiction

Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, July 10, 2009, Books

White Is for Witching

by Helen Oyeyemi
Nan A. Talese, 240 pp., $25

What is White Is for Witching?

Wayne: It's a chilling thing, a lyrical thing. It's crafted from murder and madness, from myth and memory and all that informs those dark materials. It's the third book from Helen Oyeyemi, the 24-year-old author whose first novel, The Icarus Girl, made critics tremble with literary delight. And, look, it's published with a stunning cover designed by Amanda Dewey. But who would ever judge a book by its cover?

Alan: If you've been missing Shirley Jackson all these many years, missing the creepy character-driven goodness of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hangsaman, here's a writer who seems to be a direct heir to that lamented one's gothic throne. Imagine the revered Bennington hausfrau writing The Haunting of Hill House after having grown up in England, with Nigerian roots, and after listening to the complete Belle & Sebastian oeuvre until her ears bled crimson lace down the sides of her smooth, smooth neck.

Brenner: It's a story about young Miranda Silver, who has pica and so eats chalk and plastic, and the house she lives in, which eats, it seems, the souls of the family's women. It's a story about Miranda's twin brother, Eliot; her father, Luc; her girlfriend, Ore; her female forebears – and the forces those deceased latter wield upon the most recent of distaff Silvers.

White Is for Witching, set so close to those famously white cliffs of Dover – calcium carbonate, the lot of it – also functions as an allegory for the British contentions around immigration and xenophobia, the prejudices and fears that pit the pale against the swarthy, the present against the past. Relating several perspectives, one of which is the point of view of the house itself, the writing becomes almost too precious at times, but is rescued by deft characterization and a steadily rising sense of dread. Miranda herself may remain unrescued by story's end, may reside in the ground beneath her mother's house, her ears filled with earth, her throat blocked by a slice of apple. Shhhhhh, now, reader, leave us be: We've promised not to tell.

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