Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Summer of Houses: White is for Witching


My second read for my summer of houses reading project is Helen Oyeyemi’s White is For Witching. As I mentioned in my previous post, Oyeyemi’s writing has been compared to Shirley Jackson’s, and for the gothic tone and the way she builds an eerie sense of uneasiness and foreboding, I would agree. Yet this novel is less straightforward than The Haunting of Hill House; it’s circular in structure and at times it’s difficult to gain footing in the narrative. The writing is trancelike, lulling the reader in, and our guides are unreliable on many levels. But where Hill House follows a linear trajectory that repeats wording from the beginning at the finish, and draws to close with the characters firmly ending their association with that house, White is for Witching feels like it leaves off where it starts, with each character tied by tangible or intangible tethers to the place where the trouble began—or at least, the space within four walls where they experienced it.

Oyeyemi’s novel tells the story of the Silver family house in Dover, England, and the four generations of women who have lived there. Our main character is Miranda, or Miri, who has moved to the house her mother, Lily, inherited, when her father decides the family should return to live there and turn it into a bed and breakfast. Miri and her twin brother, Eliot, are ten, and their first glimpse of the house is innocuous:

“Our new house had two big brown grids of windows with a row of brick in between each grid. No windows for the attic. From the outside the windows didn’t look as if they could be opened, they didn’t look as if they were there to let air or light in, they were funny square eyes, friendly, tired.”

Sounds nice! But soon, reader is told of the steps leading up to the house, which “bulged with fist-sized lumps of grey-white flint, each piece a knife to cut your knee should you slip.” Out in the garden, there is an Andersen shelter for air raids, and another shelter under a trapdoor in the floor of the sitting room. As they tour their new home, Eliot calls it a “wicked house,” and Miri thinks it’s “magic;” from that moment, we know their ensuing experiences will dramatically diverge.

“Miri’s room was darker than mine, even before she took to keeping her curtains drawn at all times and Lily started calling her room ‘the psychomantium.’”

Now, if you’re like me and can tell this isn’t a good sign but have to look up things like “Andersen shelter” and “psychomantium,” I give you this: “A psychomanteum is a room set aside with a chair, dim lighting, and an angled mirror, for communication with those who have died.”

So it’s Miri who is most affected by the house. She, and her mother before her, and her mother, Jennifer, and her mother, Miranda’s great-grandmother, Anna. And the house tells the reader much of the history of the previous generations. Those four POVs I mentioned? One is the house itself, and it speaks in an authoritative but often meandering way. From the start, the Silver house claims a sense of power over the proceedings within. And like the other POVs in the novel—Miri’s, Eliot’s, and Miri’s lover, Ore—we often don’t know how much to trust anyone (or thing).

Especially Miri, and her perspective. When the present action of the story begins, she has just been discharged from a “clinic.” She is dangerously thin and has a condition called pica, which I’d wager appears much more in novels than it does in real life, but which certainly does lend a creepy aura. Miri struggles with eating and her condition means that she eats things that aren’t food, like plastic and chalk.

“Miranda had been admitted to the clinic because one morning Eliot had found her wordless and thoughtful. It had been a long night, a perfect full moon tugging the sky around it into clumsy wrinkles. Miranda had been bleeding slightly from the scalp and her wrists were bound together with extreme dexterity and thin braids of her own hair.”

We’re aware of the presence of something, someone, in the house, in addition to the immediate Silver family. How would Miri have bound her own wrists? Are the visions she sees real, or part of the reason for her visit to the clinic?

I will admit, I struggled with the novel at first. These shifting perspectives, in which you are doubting veracity, timeframe, the intrusion of sinister, non-human forces, and sanity itself—well, it could be hard to follow what was happening sometimes. And I suppose what I’m about to say makes a certain sense… but the house doesn’t always communicate clearly. Here’s a passage from the house POV:

“But Anna Good couldn’t hear me. When she closed me up again it was only because she was too cold. Most nights she went with the moon, and when it was round she stayed in my biggest bedroom and wouldn’t answer the

thing that asked her to let it out

(let you out from where?

let me out from the small, the hot, the take me out of the fire i am ready i am hard like the stones you ate, bitter like those husks)”

I grew to like the sections from the house’s perspective; key information was relayed, albeit in this often ambiguous way. When Miri leaves for Cambridge at the close of Part One, I was worried about the loss of this POV. But this is when Ore’s perspective crystallizes, in Part Two, titled “And Curiouser.” And this is, in fact, when I feel the novel reached its peak pace and heightened interest. To this point, we have always doubted Miri’s thoughts, but this is when the story of her and her family seems to fade under the presence of bigger, dark forces. Just what/who is Ore? What is the nature of her relationship with Miri, and how does this new connection factor into the story of the Silver family? And who, exactly, is stabbing people at Cambridge? One concentric pattern emerges when Ore comes back to see Miri at the house.

“I took the stairs—Miranda had told me that it was only a flight up to hers and Eliot’s rooms. It seemed more like four. But in an unfamiliar house, when you’re uncertain where you’re going, every movement is prolonged by the sense that you’re going to try the wrong door or get in someone’s way.”

Through Ore’s perspective, we, too, recenter and reassess the situation with the Silver family in that old house. I wish I could say that everything becomes clear at this point, but White is for Witching is the type of book you’d probably do well to pick up right when you finish and give it a second go. It’s a moody, scintillating and, at times—challenging read. Oyeyemi’s novel fully fills my criteria for my summer reading project, because the Silver house-turned-bed-and-breakfast is a force to be reckoned with in this unique, startlingly written novel.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka