“We live in a fairy-tale,” Miranda tells her brother Eliot early in Helen Oyeyemi’s third novel, White is for Witching. To make such a direct statement is in many ways unnecessary: from the first few pages of White is for Witching, which follows in the footsteps of Oyeyemi’s critically-acclaimed The Icarus Girl and The Opposite House, it is clear that this is a fairy-tale first and foremost. Charged with potent references to everything from magic mirrors to secret doors, from enchanted shoes to glossy, bewitched apples fit for Snow White herself, this is a modern day myth; an intriguing take on contemporary gothic.
Like many traditional fairy-tales, the story centres upon twins: Miranda and Eliot Silver, who we find struggling to cope with the unexpected death of their mother Lilly. Whilst Eliot plans for the future, Miranda dresses in black and rejects her father’s gourmet cooking in favour of eating chalk, which she squirrels away in her bedroom, known to the family as the “psychomantium.” Becoming increasingly attuned to the strange spirit voices which seem to haunt their home, and most especially to the powerful spectral voice of the ambiguous “goodlady,” Miranda grows increasingly estranged from those around her: even as she attempts to move forward and build a life for herself, the house and its past inhabitants draw her inexorably back into their clinging grasp.
Far from the ordinary edifice it presents as the mundane-sounding “29 Barton Road,” the Silver home is a strange old house by the sea, which confuses visitors and entangles spirits from the past within its crumbling walls: a malign and mysterious presence that assumes increasing importance as the novel unravels itself. It is, as Eliot and Miranda state ironically at their very first sight of it, quite literally both a “Wicked” and a “Magic” house that occupies the dark heart of this novel: a maleficent dwelling fit for the pages of Allende or Márquez, albeit with a distinctly contemporary and very British twist.
An uneasy polyphony of clamouring voices narrate this modern-day fairy-tale, leaving the reader to negotiate the resulting narrative labyrinth, piecing together the fragments to make sense of the story. This tale is as slippery and tricksy as Oyeyemi’s dark magic itself: in the world of White is for Witching nothing and no one is ever quite what it may seem. At the very centre of the novel are a series of mysteries, not merely concerning the unanswered question of Miranda’s final whereabouts, but also about the borderlines between myth and reality, imagination and truth, sanity and insanity. As she delicately negotiates these complex problems, as well as related questions of love, death, loss, illness and alienation, Oyeyemi skilfully weaves together a lyrical and richly textured narrative.
Dense with references encompassing everything from West African juju to Greek mythology, Oyeyemi’s writing situates itself within the gothic tradition, paying tribute to writers from James to Poe, and referencing everything from Alice in Wonderland to Buffy the Vampire Slayer along the way. The result is a idiosyncratic yet peculiarly compelling gothic fairy-tale for our times.
Any Cop?: Read with caution: you too may find yourself more than a little bewitched by Oyeyemi’s haunting tale. Katherine Woodfine