White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi is CBC’s first book in our “Coven Reads” series. The book was a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award finalist and in 2010 won the Somerset Maugham Award. Oyeyemi’s fascination with fairy tale and legend suffuse this elegiac text, where the modern and gothic meet to create a contemporary novel that evokes the Brontës in mystery and the horrors a house can conceal.
There’s something strange about the Silver family house in the closed-off town of Dover, England. Grand and cavernous with hidden passages and buried secrets, it’s been home to four generations of Silver women—Anna, Jennifer, Lily, and now Miranda, who has lived in the house with her twin brother, Eliot, ever since their father converted it to a bed-and-breakfast. The Silver women have always had a strong connection, a pull over one another that reaches across time and space, and when Lily, Miranda’s mother, passes away suddenly while on a trip abroad, Miranda begins suffering strange ailments. An eating disorder starves her. She begins hearing voices. When she brings a friend home, Dover’s hostility toward outsiders physically manifests within the four walls of the Silver house, and the lives of everyone inside are irrevocably changed.
Our discussion veers away from our usual commitment to providing spoiler free commentary, so those who haven’t read the book may want to revisit this conversation later, as we do reveal some of the pivotal plot points in the text. Those who have already read the book, read on and give us your take in the comments!
Allison: I started the book in the afternoon and read through ‘til I finished. As soon as I was done, my first reaction was: “I should not have read this at night” and then “That was so good” and after that “I’m going to make someone else read this.” Shortly thereafter, I popped it in the mail and the book made its way to Annie.
Annie: I quite literally could not put it down. I almost made myself late (maybe I was late and I’m revising) to a social deal because I had to immediately reread the book. As soon as I finished it I thought, “Wait. Wait. Wait! What the hell!?” All of which was followed by the need to contemplate the book very carefully. So I read it again. I read it three times in two days.
Maria: I was very confused when I started reading the book –I wasn’t sure who the characters were and it was hard to discern the places where the narrators switched. It took me quite a while to realize that one of the narrators was the house itself, even though it’s clearly labelled “29 barton road.” The book seemed like a puzzle to me – pieces of information from different narrators and different time periods all jumbled together. The more I read, the more interested I became.
Allison: I had the same problem and I think it’s a pretty common one, from reviews I’ve read. Ultimately, it works, I think because the pace moves so quickly that you get drawn in, but the first fifty pages or so were a period of confusion for me. Quickly, I became invested in the mystery of what was going on. The consternation of not being able to pin anything down made me ravenous to know what happened next.
Maria: Like Annie, when I finished, I immediately went back to the beginning and started reading it again. It doesn’t begin in the middle of a sentence, like Finnegan’s Wake, but I think White is for Witching shares some similarities with Joyce’s enigmatic final work. It is also structured as a never-ending cycle; the beginning doesn’t really make sense unless you’ve read the rest of the book. And there are quite a few places throughout the book where a single word (the last one in the sentence) is separated from the rest of the text because it is also the first word of the next sentence. So as a reader, you’re constantly looking backwards and forwards, to the past and the future.
Allison: Yeah, the way Oyeyemi plays with time is so cool. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but the slippery nature of the narrative’s timeline is mesmerizing. I too, went back and read through the first few sections again, immediately after finishing.
Annie: There’s a polyvocality to the book in a lot of places that sometimes slams back into a univocality dominated by the house. I agree with you two about how Oyeyemi deals with narrative and historical time, and I think the kind of crashing between multiple voices and one voice also does a lot for the movement in time. The temporal movement becomes so fluid in some places and so jagged and frightening in others that it makes me think of correspondences to generational events that feel epochal and epochal events that feel generational–death, war, violence, imperialism, and all of the legacies that spring out of those things. Love does this, too, right? There are speaking parts that seem temporally incongruous, and it’s difficult to tell what time they are coming from, or if they are coming from living people.
Alyssa: This is definitely the most challenging and confusing book I’ve read in many years (probably since Joyce, so I like Maria’s comparison). I’ve been reading a lot of YA and commercial fiction as of late, so I’m used to rather straightforward plots. I know I should read White is for Witching at least twice, and since I’ve only read it once (and just finished it minutes ago), I’m still very confused. Like all of you, I think it’s amazing how Oyeyemi plays with time and narrative. I also was fascinated by the repetition of certain narrative details and themes. I would love to know more about her creative process while writing and revising this book. I haven’t done any research yet, but I’d like to look at reviews and author interviews. I’m going to let all of you discuss and gain a better understanding of the book by reading what you say below. Such a wise group of witches. Thank you!
Allison: This book reminds me so much of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (which I recommended last week), so Miri, and the Silver family in general didn’t surprise me much. However, the house having its own voice in the narrative threw me a little at first. Eventually, my fascination with it grew into that strange liking you often get for truly well-written villains.
Maria: I agree about the house. It’s such an interesting figure- trapping the Silver women in an attempt to protect them. I don’t know if “protect” is the best verb to use here, but it seems like there is something motherly about its behavior- especially when it traps Jennifer. The house explains, “Jennifer really meant to abandon her daughter, and how could I allow that?” Of course, the house also seems to gain sustenance from the Silver women, so its instincts are also predatory.
Annie: I loved Sade and Ore and the Paul even though he is a minor character. The Paul is gentle, which is difficult to be in this world. The Paul gives sustenance in a way that generationally precedes Luc, and the best moments in Luc’s struggle to nurture and feed Miri seem to come from the Paul.
Sade is an exceptionally deep character. She knows and sees so much. Early in the story, before the house begins to really attack her, she brings a kind of warmth to Luc and the home (not the house) that no one ever really does, not even Lily when she was still living. Sade always reminds the reader that there is an outside, too. When she takes food to the Immigration Removal Centre, when she turns up the radio to hear the devastating report about the Chinese immigrants, when she speaks to Ore and warns her and helps her, Sade pushes against the crushing insularity of the house and, really, of Dover as the story presents it.
Allison: I think Sade is our first indication that something is truly wrong with the house from an outside perspective. The Silvers are so accustomed to it that as a reader, I think you start to believe it’s “normal,” within the text at least. Ore functions in much the same way, she gives us the go-ahead to understand that the house isn’t “right” in the world of the novel.
Maria: I loved Ore too. She’s such an interesting character, and she’s one of the only narrators who isn’t part of the Silver family (depending on if you consider the house a member of the family or not). She provides a bit of an outsider’s perspective on the family, and Miri especially. She also gives the reader a more recognizable term for the goodlady: “soucouyant.”
Annie: Ore means so much to this story in so many different ways. She is a fighter and heroine, but also a friend and a lover who has a clear perspective in the way that only someone outside of the house can. I agree with Maria about Ore’s ability to clarify what is actually going on in the house and the unpleasant truth of Eliot.
Allison: Oh my lord, Eliot. I did not see that kind of crazy coming. His obsession with Miri, as it unfolded, was actually a little shocking to me.
Maria: I was also caught off guard by Eliot’s obsession, Allison.
Allison: I think though that as much as Eliot eventually disturbed me, Ore balanced him out. His love for Miri is selfish, while Ore’s is much less so. Ore’s sections of the narrative paint Miri as a whole person, one who is deeply flawed and damaged, but one who can love and who has escaped the world the house builds. Ore is the reader’s window into the surreal world of the house and her part of the narration does so much to ground the frightening aspects of the book and make them real. She and Sade are both the “comforting” characters for me, the ones who make some sense of the confusion that lots of the narrative evokes.
Annie: Ore has an innate intelligence and ability to trust herself that helps her implement Sade’s help and thereby avoid being devoured by the house or destroyed by the Silver women or Eliot. Ore’s family is a very vital rendering of the kind of Englishness that (despite her skinhead cousins Adam and Sean) resists the monolithic pathological nature of the house and the chauvinism and violence that fills it and feeds it. Ore’s home is full of people, messy incongruous people, but people who love each other very much. We find out that her parents did everything they could to be able to foster Ore, and it’s clear that she and her family belong to each other. It’s so telling that even cousins Adam and Sean express some distaste for Dover, too.
Though the book isn’t exactly horror, it definitely has some terrifying and supernatural elements. What parts of the book scared you the most?
Maria: Hands down, my favorite scene is the one where Miranda goes through the trapdoor into the small room below the house, and sees the ghosts of her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother sitting around the table set for four. Miranda’s description of her grandmother and great-grandmother (Jennifer and GrandAnna) is stunning:
They leaned forward anticipating a meal. They were naked except for corsets laced so tightly that their desiccated bodies dipped in and out like parchment scrolls bound around the middle. They stared at Miranda in numb agony. Padlocks were placed over their parted mouths, boring through the top lip and closing at the bottom. Miranda could see their tongues writhing.
Perhaps “stunning” isn’t the adjective I should be using- “terrifying,” “scary,” or “disturbing” might be more appropriate, but there is something beautiful about Oyeyemi’s attention to detail here. I was transfixed, fascinated, even though I knew I should turn away from it (especially when Jalil’s fingers start coming through the holes in the wall). Somehow, I didn’t have nightmares after reading White is for Witching, even though it’s a very dark book. I’m curious if you ladies feel similarly, or if the book did thoroughly creep you out?
Allison: As I said before, I finished the book when it was late and our house was quiet, too quiet maybe… It wasn’t that the book gave me nightmares, but it left me feeling breathless and just unable to sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It took me weeks to get over this book.
The scene you’re talking about really got to me — it sends chills down my spine to read the quote you pulled, but I think for me, the entire time Ore was in the house was what scared me most. I think it’s because she’s the one we relate to, as readers; she’s our vehicle into Miri’s world. Up until that point I think I thought that a lot of Miri’s weirdness was, like, in her own head, you know? Miri seems like a pretty text-book “unreliable narrator” and anything from Eliot or the house’s perspectives was clearly not to be trusted from the beginning, so when Ore goes there, you trust what happens to her… and what happens to her is one of the scariest things I’ve ever read.
Annie: No, no nightmares, but a lot of contemplation and general feelings of being disturbed. The scenes in which the house is unabashedly bigoted made me shudder because they have a particularly visceral quality to them. When Miri tries to eat the beef and vegetables that Luc makes for her and meets a jagged-toothed shadow self (maybe an incarnation of the soucouyant), I could hear the house spitting “As for beef, as for his Frenchie beef and fucking potatoes ha ha.” It’s like the generations of pica-suffering Silver women and the house get all Legion-voiced, and maybe Miri’s voice is in there or maybe not. It’s hard to tell, but chilling. When the house talks about Ore, when we discover Eliot’s true nature; there are so many scenes in the book that not only disturbed me, but also had intense staying power. (My initial answer to this question was, “Uhhh… can I just write 70% of the book?”)
Allison: Yeah, when I try to narrow it down to one or two things I’m left wanting to wave the book around and scream, “ALLLLLLLL OF IT.”
Annie: One other thing that stayed with me is how Oyeyemi can take sentences that are almost sparse–three to five monosyllabic words–and make them richly, deeply terrifying.
Allison: Yes, that’s stuck with me for a long time.
Do you have any lingering questions about parts of the narrative that were unresolved?
Maria: Okay, so who was stabbing the Kosovans? Was it Emma, Eliot’s ex-girlfriend who smokes the red-tipped cigarettes? Or are we really supposed to believe it’s some version of Miranda?
Allison: I don’t know! I wondered the same thing.
Annie: I wondered that too, but not for long as I chalked it all up to the anti-immigrant violence that we see haunting the text. It could have been Emma or a Miri doppelganger, I suppose. More than that I wondered what we are to do with Luc, especially since he seems to figure quite a lot out by the end.
Allison: Let’s be honest, there’s several things that are at loose ends. I’m wondering about a lot of things still.
What are your overall takeaways? Why would you recommend this book to others?
Allison: So y’all know The Night Circus is the book I recommend the most, and that’s largely because it’s so accessible. It’s dark, but not scary. This is the second book I recommend most, but only to folks who really like dark narratives and can handle the potentially disturbing nature of the book.
I love the way Oyeyemi plays with language. Maria mentioned the “stunning” nature of Oyeyemi’s prose and I completely agree. On this merit alone, I recommend this book to people who love gorgeous writing. Lots of Oyeyemi’s work plays with fairy tales and this one is no different. It’s a book I find myself thinking about on quiet afternoons and it’s been almost a year since I read it for the first time.
So basically, I’d recommend this book to people who don’t mind being scared and who appreciate narrative elements we’ve discussed like Oyeyemi’s gorgeous prose and the way she plays with time. I think you have to be a patient reader to really go for this text. As a side note, because of this discussion and the way it’s stuck with me for so long, I’m assigning it in the summer writing course I’m teaching on issues of race, gender and class. I think it will work perfectly.
Maria: I would recommend this book to others, but very selectively. It’s a challenging read, and not everyone has the patience to work out all the puzzles in the narrative. However, the fact that the book is so short makes it easier to re-read a few times.
I can think of some friends who would absolutely love this book because it’s so strange and complex. It also makes for fantastic discussions- there’s so much going on, so much to piece together. I could talk about it for days. It would make wonderful reading material for a literature class, but I think it could be fun to do with a book club as well. On a related note, I’m going to make time to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle now, so thank you Allison!
Annie: My colleagues have said most of what needs to be said here. This is one of the best works of fiction I have read in years. Grown-up political me, spooky subculture kid me, horror fan me, and doctoral student me all came to the table and agreed on this book. As Allison mentioned, she sent the book to me in a care package and also because we were compelled to be able to talk about it together. I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates a challenging book that refuses to comfort its readers and avoids the gratuitous. I would also recommend it to writers as a way to say, “Hey, look what powerful things words can be and do.”