Monday, August 4, 2014

White Is For Witching

Helen Oyeyemi
Completed 7/27/2014, Reviewed 7/28/2014
3 stars

I seem to be developing a pattern:  Read a book.  Love it. Read an earlier book by the same author.  Feel nonplussed.  This happened with Helen Oyeyemi’s “White is for Witching”.  As with “Mr. Fox”, which I loved, Oyeyemi takes a subgenre, this time the haunted house, kneads it with her amazing prose and dark imagination, sprinkles in some magical realism and voila, you’ve read something you never expected.  Unfortunately, when I tasted it, the ingredients were better than the bread. 

Miranda is a near-college age teen with a rare disorder called pica.  She craves inedible things and has to force herself to eat normal food.  She lives with her enabling twin brother and her exasperated, foodie father in a house inherited from her deceased mother, which they’ve turned into a bed and breakfast.  Pica is genetic, and can be traced back through several generations of women on Miranda’s mother’s side.  After her mother’s death, Miranda had a mental collapse, and since then has ghostly encounters with her dead female ancestors. 

The narrative is told through several characters around Miranda.  Most interestingly, one of those voices is that of the house.  The house wants to have the same relationship with Miranda as it did with her ancestors, which seems to include making her a permanent part of the house.  The house uses Miranda’s female kin to achieve this end.  Of course, no one else experiences the house this way, except for the immigrant housekeepers and some of the bed and breakfast guests. 

With Miranda’s bizarre illness, food and consumption are the dominant themes, from a poison apple to the house’s hunger for Miranda to cannibalism.  It was only in retrospect that I realized how many different ways Oyeyemi worked the variations of consuming into the story.  The realization made me wonder how much I probably missed in my initial reading.

The prose is lovely, but instead of enhancing the story, I found it distracting.  Combined with the narrative style, and some toying with form, I often found myself confused as to who was talking and when.  The book is divided into two parts, and this was particularly true in the first part.  The second part was more linear and decipherable, and downright riveting.  In reflecting on it, I had to wonder if that was the intent: a first part that conveys the mood and setup by disorienting you, and then coming together in a suspenseful climax. 

This is definitely a worthwhile book to read.   There are many delicious quotables, for example, “…maybe ‘I don’t believe in you’ is the cruelest way to kill a monster.”  I give this book three stars, which by my star system, is still a good book.  It just didn’t meet my expectations after a great book like “Mr. Fox”.   

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