White is for Witching – Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching has been dividing the opinion of readers for a while. I am always intrigued by books that create a love-hate divide and so set out to find out which side of the fence I’d fall.

White is for Witching is supposed to be a creepy book. Unfortunately I was too confused to feel any ghostly chills, but there were a lot of strange happenings in this short novel.

The book centres on a pair of twins, Eliot and Miranda, who move into their ancestral home – a crumbling house on the cliffs of Dover. The twins are mourning the death of their mother, but the house does more to scare than comfort them.

The book is narrated by four different characters, one of which is the house. This was a great idea, but I found the narrative to be disjointed and confusing. I felt that the experimental writing style was given priority over plot.

There were frequent sections of beautiful writing, but the lack of any real plot meant that I frequently lost interest in the book and had to force myself to pick it up again.

The sun was setting into storm clouds; there was a smoky brightness outside, as if the world was being inspected by candlelight. I saw the woman who’d brushed me on the stairs the first time I’d gone up them. This time when I saw her I knew she wasn’t a house guest. She was standing under one of the trees, standing so deep in the ground that the earth levelled around her ankles.  As if she had no feet, as if she was growing.

I think this is one of those books that would benefit from re-reading, but although some things would probably become clearer there would still be a lot of questions left unanswered. Some people think this ambiguity is spooky, but I just found it frustrating – when I finish a book I like to have some idea of what happened!

If you’re the sort of person who loves reading modern fairy tales and gets excited by the appearance of unexplained apples then you could be one of the people who love this book. Unfortunately I prefer books with a more conventional narrative. 

The thoughts of other bloggers:

I could seriously go on and on about all the things I loved in the book A Striped Armchair

…as confused as I may have been, I was also in awe of Oyeyemi’s fresh voice… The Indextrious Reader

 I really didn’t have a clue as to what was going on for the majority of the book. Serendipity

…a little too much structural experiment for my likingStuck in a Book

Did you enjoy White is for Witching?

42 replies on “White is for Witching – Helen Oyeyemi”

Interesting, as soon as you mentioned the twins I thought of the latest Niffenegger, whcih I guess goes to show what a good book that is.

I REALLY like modern fairy tales. A friend of mine and fellow Year Zero Writer, Daisy Anne Gree, is working on a collection of retellings of fairy stories that is both rich and very scary. Fairy tales can be greta vehicles for looking at the human condition in part because they deal with with strong archetypes, and in part because so many of them are already planted in our subconscious, so we don’t come to them blank. But these things also mean that to retell them well, we have to be highly sympathetic to the original, and it almost certainly takes more skill than starting from scratch.

Dan, Twins often seem to feature in these spooky books. I have had trouble with a few of these fairy modern fairy tales recently (Girl with Glass Feet and Tender Morsels) I guess that is a sign that I should avoid them, but they always sound so tempting…

Oyeyemi writing seems to confuse a lot of us. I have to admit that I really enjoyed her style in The Icarus Girl, I’m not sure about the plot though. I don’t think I will give her a try again for a while, but I have to admit that I like the idea of having a house as one of the narrators.

Iris, I’m not sure I’d try her again either, at least not her earlier books. Perhaps her next one will be easier to understand? I love the idea of having the house as the narrator, but I’m not sure I’d have even noticed it was the house if I hadn’t known in advance – far too clever for me 🙂

I know this one didn’t really work for you Jackie but you are making it sound really interesting! I’m not normally a modern fairy tale kind of reader but I do like ghost stories.

Karen, I’m pleased that I’m not putting people off. It does seem to divide people, so if you love ghost stories then this may be for you…

I was confused and disappointed too. I was relieved though to see the development in her work; The Icarus Girl was a good book, especially one by such a young writer, but the prose and style were pedestrian in comparison to the complexities of White is for Witching.

Claire, I think it is amazing that she is producing these books at such a young age (and so quickly too!) She is an author to watch – in 10 years time she could well be one of the most cherished authors in the world. It is just a shame that I don’t quite understand her yet!

I’ve been in two minds about reading this book given the vastly different reviews I have seen. However, I think you have persuaded me to give it a try since I usually like modern fairy tales.

I’m just about halfway through this book and I see what you mean. I am finding it kind of spooky just because I have no idea what is going on and is going to happen!

Amy, I need to be fully engaged in a story to find it scary. The tension needs to be built up carefully or it becomes just weird descriptions and not creepy. Perhaps I’m just too rational? I look forward to reading your final thoughts on this one. I hope that you enjoy it.

I am glad to see I was not the only one to struggle with this. I really didn’t like it much at all, but I can recommend The Icarus Girl. Thank you for quoting me in your post.

vivienne, It is good to know that you enjoyed The Icarus Girl more, but I’m still not convinced. At least we’re not alone in being confused 🙂

Twins and a crumbling mansion? It has been known to work. It is a good start at least. But if it is that confusing, I can’t imagine it would scare me. I prefer my ghosts to attack me outright.

Sandy, LOL! Twins and old houses tend to work really well – I think I have enjoyed all the other books with this combination to some extent.

I think I need some elements of realism to get scared by a book. The opening chapters of The Strain are the scariest I’ve ever read because I found them so plausible. I agree – ghosts need attack outright to bereally scary. Hiding in the shadows doesn’t do it for me.

I saw this the other day and almost brought it until I remembered it was on your just finished list. I think I will read it at some point because Im a sucker for spooky and werid twins but I wont rush out and I wont pay what waterstones wanted for it.

Jessica, I’m flattered that you waited for my review 🙂

I hope you manage to find a copy at some point – perhaps your library has a copy? I hope that you enjoy it more than I did 🙂

I’ve seen this book mentioned, but I’ve not really read any reviews until yours. The plot sounds promising so I might have to check it out. I sometimes like modern retellings of fairy tales–I suppose it depends on how it’s done. I’ll have to see if my library has it.

Danielle, I think you can judge whether or not you’ll enjoy this book quite quickly – the first few pages are some of the hardest to understand. I hope that you manage to find a copy in your library 🙂

I haven’t read this, but your review reminded me of the way felt reading Tara French’s Lost In The Woods. I, too, love reading books which have a love/hate reputation in the blogging world. It always makes me wonder upon which side I’ll fall. (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Not a huge fan.;)

Bellezza, Oh no! I’d only heard wonderful things about In the Woods…. I wonder whether I’ll enjoy it?

I wasn’t a huge fan of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo either. Perhaps our tastes will align on In the Woods?

I think twins can be very overused, but it worked for me in White is for Witching. Actually I think the relationship between Elliot and Miranda is what grounded the book for me – they were both real characters I could understand and enjoy spending time with, and that (and the lovely writing) pulled me through the confusing aspects of the book. Sorry it wasn’t better for you!

Jenny, I did like the relationship between Eliot and Miranda, but I wish I knew what was happening around them! There do seem to be far more twins in literature than real life, but I guess they just intrigue us all. I don’t mind twins if they are used well 🙂 I’m pleased that you enjoyed it.

It looks like the reviews have been mixed for this one. I’ve never read anything by this author but she seems to be a little like Ondaatje. Sometimes the language and the plot gets tangle up together, making the reading experience somewhat puzzling.

Lydia, I’m afraid that I haven’t read any Ondaatje yet so can’t compare the two, but I can agree that Oyeyemi’s writing is very puzzling 🙂

Stu, It does seem that her books are improving with each one (I gather from other people’s comments, I haven’t read her first two) I hope her next one will be better too 🙂

Michele, That is an interesting point. The author is quite young (born 1984) and most of the people who love this book seem to be on the younger end of the age scale. Perhaps we’re just too old to appreciate these types of book now?

I really like this review – clearly it wasn’t quite your cup of tea but you’ve picked out the enjoyable elements like the writing style too. Sounds like an interesting if slightly unusual book but perhaps not on that I would run out and buy right now.

I haven’t read White is for Witching yet. I checked it out from the library twice and didn’t get around to read it either time. I did read The Icarus Girl by the same author and enjoyed that.

I´ve only read a couple of pages of this and then wasn´t in the mood for it, but I have to say the different opinions make me extremely curious!

I wonder if it will be too unconventional and confusing for me, but I have survived various postmodern reads so I´m hopeful! 🙂

why do twins always show up in spooky books? I admit that identical twins are a bit disconcerting to me (I once asked a friend if she thought it was weird that she and her sister could have been one person and she was like….no?) but why are they such a trope?

J.T. I guess that twins just intrigue us. I didn’t feel they were really needed in this book – a brother and sister would have work just as well.

Thanks for the link love! Like you, I was too baffled to enjoy this one…

As a twin, I love reading twin books, but this one didn’t work – and as you say in the comment above, they could just as well have been singleton brother and sister.

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