My second pick for the R.I.P. Challenge is Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching, and I loved it. I’m not sure I fully understood it, or even that it is a book than can be fully understood, but I’m okay with that.
It’s the story of teenage twins, Miranda and Eliot, both about to graduate the British version of high school and embark on their lives as adults. It’s also the story of a house in Dover, England, the house where the twins live with their father, Luc, who runs a bed and breakfast there. And it is also the story of Ore, a young black woman adopted and raised by white parents, who meets Miranda at Cambridge. It’s told from multiple perspectives, including one from the (malevolent) house itself.
One evening she pattered around inside me, sipping something strong that wedged colour into her cheeks, and she dragged all my windows open, putting her glass down to struggle with the stiffer latches. I cried and cried for an hour or so, unable to bear the sound of my voice, so shrill and pleading, but unable to stop the will of the wind wheeling through me, cold in my insides. That was the first and last time I’ve heard my own voice. I suppose I am frightening. 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)
Miranda suffers from a condition called pica, in which people compulsively eat non-food items; apparently all the women in her mother’s lineage suffered from it as well. her favorite thing to eat is chalk. She suffered from it even before her mother Lily’s death, but her mental and physical health take a dramatic turn for the worse after Lily dies. She can’t sleep. Her brother and father are aware of her condition but are powerless to stop her from harming herself. Eliot feels the full weight of responsibility for her, since Lily is gone and Luc is pretty much going through the motions of parenting. After defending Miranda from a serious accusation of violence, the reader sees him sag under the pressure.
The duty to speak when Miri couldn’t, to make sense when she didn’t. I checked that no one was around, then put my forehead to my locker and stood against it like a plank, with all my weight in my head. I stood like that until I stopped feeling like breaking something. Otherwise I could snap the Biros in my pocket, go into the nearest empty classroom and slam the chairs into the bookshelves, then what? Go home and smash Lily’s camera? Thank you, Lily, for leaving me in charge of someone I just can’t be responsible for. She won’t forget or recover, she is inconsolable.
As the house divulges information about the women in Miranda’s family, it also describes terrifying acts it performs on guests at the B&B. People who work there feel the evil presence. The house does not like that Miranda has gone away to school. It does not like that Miranda has a special relationship with Ore. Ore comes to visit her on a school break and strange and scary things happen to her as well. Miranda knows that something is very wrong, something that she is not strong enough to escape from. The ending is sad, unsettling, and decidedly ambiguous, with a strong sense of magical realism.
I found myself more engaged with and moved by this novel than by the only other Oyeyemi book I’ve read, Boy, Snow, Bird, which I appreciated but didn’t love. I will be seeking out the rest of Oyeyemi’s books for sure – she is a strikingly original author. This is the quintessential October book, equal parts sad and creepy: a mystery, a ghost story, and a haunting love story all at once. An excellent choice for my first R.I.P.!