I love picking up a book and thinking “What the hell is going on?” But in a good way. I love when a book is so out there and unexpected that it actually surprises me. And I read a lot of weird shit, so this is not easy to accomplish. Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is one such book. It is eerie, and strange, and unexpected in so many ways that I wish I could give it 5 stars just for that.
This book is about family, and friendship, and race, and class, and education. And then it’s not about any of these things. It is just a piece of a life being torn apart by psychological illness. I think a lot of people read this book and found it pretentious. I think they came at it, expecting it to be difficult because it’s strange. But it’s not difficult. I think it’s actually quite straight-forward, and readers do themselves a disservice by trying to read more into it than Oyeyemi is giving us.
As if what she gives us isn’t enough! White is for Witching is the story of Miranda Silver, and her struggle with an eating disorder called pica, which prompts her to eat inedible materials. Miri is wasting away, knowing that she is sick but trying to get better, as she watches her illness begin to break apart what is left of her family—a fraternal twin brother and a father—after the death of her mother.
Women of the Silver family (the twins have their mother’s surname because they were born with blue eyes, an agreement that their parents made before their births) are plagued by madness, a kind of curse. And as Miri and her brother Eliot become adults they are pulled apart by more than the inevitable changes of adulthood; Miri’s downward spiral into mental illness is destroying their relationship.
Miri remains a bit of a mystery. At the very outset of the novel, Miranda Silver has gone missing. She is never given a first person narrative voice as are her brother Eliot, her best-friend/lover Ore, and the house that she and her brother have grown up in. Yes, that’s right, the house narrates a portion of this novel. And it’s kind of a bastard. The suggestion is that the house has a large part to play in the madness of the Silver women, though just how large a part isn’t made clear until the end of the novel. And by then you’re wishing someone would just burn the thing down. Seriously creepy.
The only reason I haven’t given White is for Witching 5 stars is that I felt some things were left a little too open. I’m not big on having plot spelled out for me, I actually like to be able to bring a little of myself to story. But there were moments in this one that left me a little baffled. For example, why is the house racist?—it seems as if the house has taken on the prejudices of the original occupants in the Silver matri-lineage. But why did this one woman’s world-view stick and none of the other Silver women seem to be able to sway the house’s opinions?
Okay, if you haven’t read this book that sounds like a strange line of inquiry. If you have read it, maybe you can tell me… Did I miss something? And then there’s the sub-plot with Eliot’s girlfriend who seems to want to look like Miri, and uses her disguise to… get some immigrant boys stabbed to death? Riddle me that. I would have liked just a tad more than Oyeyemi’s given us here. I just couldn’t connect the dots in any kind of meaningful way.
In spite of these minor glitches I felt White is for Witching to be an exciting, original read. It’s a brief and poetically written. It’s a little dark, which I like, and has just a touch of magic realism without coming across as campy. Take an afternoon off and pick up this book! It’s a quick and rewarding read. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.