On the stoke of the Witching Hour – Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching

Cover image of trees around a houseWhite is for Witching takes Horace Walpole’s vision of the Gothic to its heart and extends it, expressing the idea of the New Gothic in a less abstract form. It mixes low culture with high and also the post-colonial with weird tales. In so doing, she creates an odd story which has echoes and ghosts all over the place.

The novel changes – perhaps adapting or even abusing – form in each section. Moving between narrators and tones of voice, Oyeyemi explores ways of seeing the Miranda’s depression and mental illness, from the early diagnosis of pica to her disappearing completely from the novel. There is no “by your leave” or note, no explanation, just a hope of a return. Or even understanding. The author goes through various possible “explanations” for her illness, seemingly disproving or counting them all as outlandish. As with Mr Fox, there is no simple explanation, just a refusal to help or deal with the issues.

In an echo of post-modernism’s concern with story, the text is intercut with interjections which turns often the meaning of a paragraph or scene. Language here becomes a way of changing the way that the world is expressed, moving from concrete to abstract and back in short fashion. As such she gives the blurred impression of a world which can be viewed in so may ways, where meaning is something that is hard to pin down. A series of voices cut in and try to take control of the stories being told, like a slightly petulant child.

It creates the impression of a fine ghost story, which we only realise is happening when it is far too late. Miranda has gone. She is anchored to her parent’s house and her acceptance to Cambridge appears to be final act, seeing her realise that her boundaries and the four walls of the Bed and Breakfast. When Ore, her lover visits, the main question that her siblings have is whether Ore is a Kentish maid or a maid of Kent. The answer is dependent which part of Kent she was born in and, fortunately or not, it appears to be the correct one. The excursion to Cambridge takes the novel slightly into Evelyn Waugh territory with its comedy of manners at college dinners. This exploration is brief since she returns to the heart and the house. The ghost, or vampire, have extreme difficulty in moving away from home.

As she explores the world, she comes into contact with the soucouyant legend with Ore. The mix makes her increasingly strange and becoming distant from the narrative, beginning to inhabit her own story. Rather than being part of solely a European story, Oyeyemi allows her to become something larger and unfamiliar.

Mixing tones and forms allows White is for Witching to take the Gothic in a different way, if it remains in a similar role to the Gothic. It is a safety valve for talking about mental illness and its oddity brings the internal world into clearer view. Its weirdness is content to remain unexplained which is perhaps a more shocking ending than we might dare. Though I have not read her first two novels yet, there appears to be a theme of exploring the ways the women’s mental illness is portrayed and even dealt with in fiction with Mr Fox using the fairy tale as a counter weight to the portrayal of Bluebeard’s second wife’s illness. Rather than being the confines of Patrick McGrath’s hospitals, these are the cosy homes of our own experience. Which is what makes it all the more frightening.

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *