Book Review: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiTitle: White is for Witching
Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Publisher: Picador
Date: 2010 (2009)
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy
Summary: In a vast, mysterious house on the cliffs near Dover, the Silver family is reeling from the hole punched into its heart. The twins, Miranda and Eliot, and their father, Luc, are mourning the sudden death of Lily, beloved mother and wife. All is not well with the house, either, which creaks and grumbles and malignly confuses visitors in its mazy rooms, forcing winter apples in the garden when the branches should be bare. Generations of Silver women inhabit its walls, and Miranda, with her new appetite for chalk and her keen sense for spirits, is more attuned to them than she is to her brother and father. When one dark night she vanishes entirely, the survivors are left to tell her story. “Miri I conjure you…”

I have mixed feelings about this book.

White is for Witching is a contemporary Gothic fantasy novel by Helen Oyeyemi. I’m referring to it as ‘Gothic’ even though it’s not really marketed as Gothic because it combines several common tropes of the Gothic novel, particularly the haunted or sentient house. It also has creepy twins and an unreliable narrator. The novel tells the story of Eliot, the narrator, and his twin sister, Miranda, who suffers from a rare eating disorder called pica that compels her to eat chalk. Their family house – which doubles as a B&B – seems to be alive in some way. It’s also clearly xenophobic and this builds through the novel. The main focus of the story is the way that the house keeps drawing Miranda back. It consumes the women who live in it, transforming them into those that have come before, but it leaves the men somewhat unscathed.

The first part of the novel left me feeling cold and uncomfortable. I’ll admit that the beginning was creepy in all the best ways but then everything slowed down and it became too mundane. I enjoy it when an author contrasts action and inaction but it was just too slow for me. I understand that Oyeyemi was slowly building tension but parts of the story were dull. I wasn’t comfortable with any of the main characters and only the promise of a malevolent, haunted house kept me reading. That promise was met at the end of the first part as the House reveals itself and its past.

The second part of the novel was amazing. Sections of it were terrifying and frantic, the newly introduced characters were lively and believable, and the ending was just as odd as I wanted it to be. Ore, Miranda’s girlfriend, is the catalyst for the events of the second part as the house and its ghostly inhabitants are enraged that Miranda is in love with a Black girl. The house subjects Ore to numerous violent hallucinations, each more terrifying than the last, but her Nigerian heritage and the stories of her ancestors allow her to fight back. Ore becomes the narrator, and she is the final first-person narrator of the book, revealing the House to the reader as she sees it and as it truly is.

So, overall, this was a strange read for me. I think it was worth reading just for the second half and I appreciate the work that Oyeyemi did in the first section to set the book up. I just wanted more from it and I wish I liked more characters as much as I liked Ore. Her characterisation was fantastic.

Would I recommend it? I would because I did enjoy it, despite the slow start.

The StoryGraph | UK*

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

  1. This seems really interesting. I’ve read one book by Oyeyemi and enjoyed the writing and magical realism of it, so I would definitely check this one out. Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

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