White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

I read this book because I was informed it was inspired by Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Though Rhys may have been an influence on the author, there are no obvious links with her Bronte inspired narrative, but there are clear links with Rhys’ post modern style as this strange story blends different narrative voices and settings, unfolding a story of madness and magic.

The Silver family move into a large house near the cliffs of Dover, a house inherited through the maternal line. The family begin a guesthouse business but this is soon disrupted by the death of The mother, Lily Silver, while overseas. She leaves her twins, Miranda and Eliot, and her gentle French husband, Luc, in deep shock and struggling to come to terms with her absence. Miranda starts to suffer from an eating disorder, pica, where she eats things that are not food, especially chalk. Miranda’s bond with the house is different to her brother’s as she feels it like a living presence and the generations of women who have lived there in generations past.

This is a tale that has Gothic roots but a contemporary narrative structure. The four narrative voices weave an incomplete story, mixing themes of magic, sexuality, attraction, racial identity and mental illness. This does make it difficult to follow, certainly at first, and the story remains incomplete as different narrators draw different conclusions. I have to admit I spent most of the time I was reading it confused. As I was on a train I felt compelled to continue reading anyway and I did enjoy the book, though it’s difficult to explain why!

The prose is beautifully written and perfectly evokes both Dover and Cambridge. Minor characters are delicately drawn; Luc, struggling to write a cookbook for delicate eaters as he attempts to feed his daughter who fades before his eyes. Overall, it is the quality of the writing that holds this strange book together. After reading, the unfinished stories are frustrating, then that is not uncommon in postmodern stories. It would be a good book to study or just to book club so these narrative holes could be explored with others.

September’s book club choice. Shylock is my name by Howard Jacobson

img_1360

Though I’m posting this in October, it was the September choice of my book club. It is a book that split the readers between those who liked it and half who had no kind words to say! It is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

Personally, I enjoyed reading the story, though if it had not been a book club book, I might have given up well before it engaged my attention. It is Jacobson’s reimagining of the Merchant of Venice. Though it achieves this through the character of Shylock speaking for himself to the contemporary word. Shylock meets a wealthy Jewish man in a graveyard in an area of Cheshire located just outside Manchester, part of the gaudy golden triangle, where T.V. celebrities and footballers party hard. The man, Simon Strulovitch, is an art collector who invites Shylock into his home.  Strulovitch is not an observant Jew; he does not attend synagogue or observe Sabbath. However, he retains strong views about the identity of his daughter’s boyfriends who he firmly believes should be Jewish. It is through Strulovitch’s struggles with his daughter that his dialogue with Shylock unfolds in a story that cleverly mirrors the Merchant of Venice. (However, if a reader is not familiar with the original play, it is advisable to at least read a synopsis to understand what it is mirroring.) As they speak of Strulovitch’s problems with his daughter, the two men explore the nature of what it means to be a Jew. Strulovitch’s daughter, Beatrice, becomes involved with Plurabelle, a reality television star and a modern day reinterpretation of Portia. Her friend Danton (Antonio) wants an artwork owned by Strulovitch and they draw Beatrice into a sequence of events that cleverly mirror the original play. These events are really a subtext to the whole novel where Jacobson explores the inner life of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters. Through their dialogue, Shylock and Strulovitch explore the nature of patriarchy, vengance, mercy, the duty of Jewishness and the weight of history being a Jew brings culturally and religiously (and whether these things can be separated). It is in these areas the novel is stimulating and revealing.

Jacobson assumes that the reader is familiar with Shakespeare’s Shylock and I suspect that it would be less attractive to those who are not. It certainly aims at intellectual discourse rather than narrative entertainment. One of the book club criticisms was that Jacobson did not challenge the patriarchal actions of Strulovitch towards his daughter, his apparent ownership of her in places. It is not an easy read and probably a book I will pass on rather than revisit. I did find the font difficult to read and the paper quality poor – sorry Vintage!