Book Review: White is for Witching – Helen Oyeyemi

I couldn’t wrap my head around this novel.

Is this a haunted house book, or are its inhabitants the ones who haunt themselves? It’s hard to tell.

Oyeyemi is unusual in how she’s written this book: paragraphs on the same page cut between different narrators with no clear indication that there’s been a shift. You realize the change based on context and who is being mentioned by other characters.

One of the main characters, Miranda ‘Miri’, has pica, which is featured in snippets throughout the book. She also has, what I suspect, is Cotard’s delusion – she thinks herself dead.

Overall, the book is meandering, and doesn’t have a definitive point to it. It does have a plot of sorts, and could be a character study, but it doesn’t make sense most (any) of the time. But that maybe is the point – it’s a stream of consciousness story based on magical realism.

“But then, maybe “I don’t believe in you” is the cruelest way to kill a monster.”

There is a lot of subtleties – the racism is a bit more overt, but the potential incest? It had a Flowers in the Attic feel to the sibling relationship, but it’s hard to tell if anything happened or if the brother wanted things to. There seems to be quite a bit of psychosis in the family – Miri, for sure, but perhaps the brother as well? Sade, the housekeeper has mental issues, and maybe Ore does as well?

I didn’t feel any of the suspense and thrilling aspects that got me to buy the book in the first place. When Oyeyemi was likened to Shirley Jackson, I assumed the house itself would be menacing – instead, it is an amalgam of long-dead relatives, all women, who have stayed on within as ghosts. They haunt others, including murdering them (I think). They may have also caused Miranda’s disappearance (it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s happened in this book).

There was mention of the Soucouyant, which was a pleasant surprise because my family’s Trinidadian background has mention of this witch hag in its folklore, but I wish the use of the Soucouyant was less vampiric and more folklorish. It seems like Miri was a Soucouyant, but, yet again, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. And maybe the whole book is a study in psychosis – it’s hard to differentiate between reality and the mind’s creations and diversions.

I gave the book 2 stars because I didn’t understand it one bit and could only guess at things hinted. Maybe the writing technique is too erudite for me, or maybe Oyeyemi is defining her own genre and we’re not used to that sort of writing yet. Overall, it’s too esoteric and too little sensical for me to have enjoyed.

Favorite quotes in White is for Witching:

“I’ve read that madness is present when everything you see and hear takes on an equal significance. A dead bird makes you cry, and so does a doorknob.” 

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