White is for Witching, By Helen Oyeyemi

Reviewed,James Urquhart
Friday 05 June 2009 00:00

Twins Eliot and Miranda are ten when they move into the exciting, rambling Dover pile that their mother Lily Silver inherited from her grandmother. "Wicked house," Eliot approved. "Magic," Miranda stressed with awe.

With its mazy passages, hidden portals and mysterious power over objects within, the Silver House is one of the four compelling voices that narrate this superbly atmospheric account of Miranda's struggle with life. The twins' father Luc had opened the place as a bed-and-breakfast, but guests and staff flee the "ill-favoured" building. Only Miranda seems to register the psychic presences of her mother Lily, who was shot in Haiti, Lily's selfish teenage mother who absconded, and GrandAnna - who raised Lily and bequeathed the house.

There is much more than maternal haunting in this mesmeric exploration of alienation and loss. Miranda's precarious sanity drifts through months of therapy. Her immersion in myths of self-consuming witchery draws out a potent theme of possession, sustenance and self-harm that straddles a porous border between the corporeal and spirit worlds. Miranda also suffers from pica, an eating disorder that whets "an appetite for... things that don't nourish". Refusing Luc's tempting cuisine while bingeing on chalk and plastic aggravates the gnawing sense that Miranda is dwindling away.

Besides Miranda and the house, two other crisp voices flesh out Oyeyemi's gothic tale. Eliot finds himself isolated, unable to restrain his sister from succumbing to forces beyond his understanding. Ore, black and adopted, is a friend Miranda entwines around at Cambridge, where both women feel the burden of history presented by the university's ancient architecture.

This eloquent narrative delivers grandly on the promise of Oyeyemi's startling debut The Icarus Girl, a luminous title with resonances throughout this gifted young writer's three novels of women assailed by spirit or story while trying to keep aloft in the physical world. The Icarus girl suffered from an imaginary friend-turned-fiend, whose meddlesome presence deranged her physical world. Miranda is a more sophisticated incarnation of this fascination with the spirit world.

Oyeyemi's languid cadences are more burnished, her sinuous ideas more firmly embedded in the fabric of this disturbing and intricate novel. The dark tones of Poe in her haunting have also the elasticity of Haruki Murakami's surreal mental landscapes. White is for Witching has the subtle occlusions of her previous two works with a tenacious undertow, drawing the reader into its deeper currents.

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