Helen Oyeyemi burst onto the Anglophone literary scene in 2005 with her first novel, The Icarus Girl. The story of a precocious but troubled British girl who, while visiting relatives in Nigeria, discovers an imaginary friend who is more than she seems, the novel perfectly captures the child’s point-of-view while letting its readers see more than its main character does. At once a examination of the stress of a difficult child on an interracial, immigrant family and a supernatural thriller centering on the Yoruba spirit world, the book earned rave reviews.
But the story behind the story got more attention. Oyeyemi wrote the novel at age 18 while studying for her A-level exams, and published it nearly simultaneously with two plays she had written while an undergrad at Cambridge University (Juniper’s Whitening and Victimese). Her youth made her a valuable commodity for a publishing industry, and has often overshadowed what I find most interesting about Oyeyemi—her talent, her use of supernatural and fantastic aspects of Diasporic African cultures to speak the difficulties faced by immigrants in the UK, her experimentation with literary styles.
That last point is an important one. While The Icarus Girl uses a restrained realism that powerfully offsets the supernatural elements of its story, Oyeyemi’s plays and novels since have embraced an exuberant disregard for literary conventions. (Perhaps not coincidentally Oyeyemi has befriended Ali Smith, a Scottish lesbian writer who has outspokenly championed experimental fiction, especially by women.) She has played with typeface and language, and abandoned long-standing conventions like plot.
This is particularly true of her second novel, The Opposite House, whose lush, experimental language is often difficult to follow. It weaves together the story of Maja, a singer of Black Cuban descent in multicultural London, with that of the fertility goddess Yemaya, who dwells in “the somewherehouse” with other orishas from the Santeria religion. Gradually the reader realizes that Maya, and all her family and friends (even the white ones), have counterparts in the spirit world—that they are in fact all aspects, or manifestations, of the orishas, unable to recognize each other because of successive migrations across the ocean.
The Opposite House received some rave reviews (like this one from Strange Horizons) and was short-listed for the Wright/Hurston Legacy Award for Fiction, but it also scared some people off Oyeyemi. Readers kept up all night by The Icarus Girl’s gripping plot didn’t know what to make of its elaborate, plotless pile-up of characters, or its complex web of symbolism, which requires extensive knowledge of Santeria to makes sense of.
As someone who both immensely enjoyed The Icarus Girl but its writer was still learning her craft, I was excited to see such Oyeyemi take such big stylistic risks, but I felt her plays succeeded in a way the second novel didn’t. Now that her third novel, White Is for Witching, has arrived, I think she has reconcile her interest in the experimental with her ability to tell an old-fashioned story.
All Oyeyemi’s novels and plays center on the figure of the hysteric, a young or teenage girl afflicted with severe antisocial behavior—something that might equally be mental illness or spirit possession. Miranda Silver, the focus of White Is for Witching, is no exception. She suffers from pica, a rare eating disorder that compels its victims to consume non-edible substances, and she has a number of anorexic-like tricks (like pretending to bite her nails while slipping slivers of rock into her mouth). One level of the book concerns Miranda’s family grappling with a girl who will pretend to sleep through dinner and then secretly devour a blue plastic spatula.
But unlike Oyeyemi’s previous hysterics, Miranda, and the rest of her family, are white. Before reading the novel I had seen it referenced in online discussions about race-lifted covers, and read that Miranda’s family was Haitian. So I thought the aggressively pale girl pictured on the book’s cover was yet another white face put on a black author’s work. Surprise! Miranda’s mother comes from a long-established white English family, her father is a white Frenchman, and Oyeyemi makes much of the pallor of her skin.
As its title indicates, whiteness matters within this book, which is fundamentally a haunted house story. The reader gradually disocovers that Miranda’s erratic behavior is indelibly linked to her family’s house, a bed-and-breakfast her widowed father operates in Dover.
Dover of course holds an iconic position in British identity—as the point closest to the European Continent, its white chalk cliffs have often been the first sight immigrants have seen. (Miranda constantly eats chalk, and Oyeyemi sets several scenes at the cliffs themselves.) In White Is for Witching, the city is a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment—“What is wrong with Dover?” one of the characters asks, after yet another anti-immigrant murder—and an extension of the Silver House, a building animated by its own intelligence.
Able to stretch and alter the bounds of reality within its walls and beyond, the house does terrible things to the women in Miranda’s family, who are both its victims and its collaborators. But its real attacks are reserved for anyone nonwhite or foreign-born: the undocumented Kurdish family who works for Miranda’s father, black visitors to the house, and a variety of refugees and immigrants in Dover.
While Silver House has some specific ghosts—including a host of pale people and the eerie “goodlady”—we gradually come to see that the horror haunting the house isn’t an individual, but a manifestation of the racist animus faced by immigrants and their children in the UK.
The story is told by three narrators: Ore, who role in this world is at first a mystery; Eliott, Miranda’s more earthbound twin brother; and the increasingly creepy house itself. (Part One, “Curioser,” is divided between Eliott and the house; Part Two, “And Curiouser,” between Ore and the house, with occasional appearances from Eliott.) This triple structure works very well; whenever reality becomes difficult to discern in one narration, another will offer a counterpoint, keeping the reader grounded without undercutting the power of the fantastical scenes.
At times the book implies that one or more of these narrators are unreliable, and challenges the reader to pick the truth between them. But together they add up to a more full picture of the events within the Silver House, as each voice betrays its biases and blindnesses in telling details. (The house often deliberately omits nonwhite characters’ names, for instance, while Eliott often refuses to mention ethnicities.)
My favorite character in the book was Ore, a young black student at Cambridge University struggling with her attraction to other women and obsessed with the story of the soucouyant, a legendary Caribbean monster. Her knowledge of the legend becomes vital in the climactic battle at the story’s end, and her story is a striking counterpoint to Miranda’s. Just as the two girls come from different backgrounds, their encounters with and opposition to Silver House and all it represents take very different forms.
I won’t spoil the end of this book, but I will tell you I had trouble sleeping after I finished it.
- Haunted by a House: A Review of White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi