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.

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