R.I.P. Challenge: White Is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

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.

6277227It’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.51ggkdnfrdl

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.!

 

RIP Challenge: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

“I wish Aunt Fanny would stop babbling sacrilegious nonsense,” Mrs. Halloran said, and there was an ominous note in her voice.

“Call it nonsense, Orianna, say – as you have before – that Aunt Fanny is running in crazed spirits, but – although I am of course not permitted to threaten – all the regret will be yours.”

“I feel it already,” Mrs. Halloran said.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.

“Splendid,” Mrs. Halloran said.  “I was getting very tired of all of them.”

shirley-jackson-the-sundialYou know when you begin a novel with a grandmother matter-of-factly talking with her granddaughter about pushing the girl’s father down the stairs to his death that the usual rules of play don’t apply.  Shirley Jackson’s 1958 novel The Sundial, which I read as part of the 11th R.I.P. Challenge, was the the fourth of her books that I’ve read, and it was definitely the funniest, albeit in a bleak way.  The basic premise is that a group of awful people, some related and some not, trade witty barbs and gradually succumb to the apocalyptic visions of Aunt Fanny, in effect preparing for the end of the world.  Fanny’s vision says that everyone in the house will be spared and will perpetuate a fresh start for humankind. Everyone else is toast.

The imperious, controlling Mrs. Halloran (Orianna) has inherited the house (more like a mansion) after her son Lionel’s death.  Living with her are her mousy daughter-in-law, Maryjane, her granddaughter, the wickedly precocious Fancy, her husband Richard, who is wheelchair-bound and suffering from dementia, Fancy’s governess, Miss Ogilvie, a young man named Essex, who was supposedly hired to catalog the library, and Richard’s sister Fanny, who has the aformentioned vision while lost one night in the estate’s maze.  Add a distant cousin, a seventeen-year old named Gloria, an old friend of Orianna’s named Mrs. Willow and her two unmarried daughters, Julia and Arabella, and a stranger invited from the village basically because he’s a youngish (theoretically virile) man, whom they dub “The Captain.”

Oh, and along with the maze and a man-made lake, there’s an actual sundial on the lawn inscribed with the inscrutable phrase WHAT IS THIS WORLD?  No one really knows what it’s supposed to mean.

At first it seems like the members of the Halloran House are humoring Aunt Fanny by beginning to prepare for the end of the world, going along with her ideas about what to stock up on, even going so far as to burn the books in the library to make more room for provisions.  But as the story progresses, everyone seems to become more paranoid and fearful, and starts taking her predictions more seriously.  They even enlist Gloria to gaze into a mirror glazed with oil to see if she can more accurately predict the exact date of the apocalypse.  Once they’ve got a date, they throw a huge garden party for the poor, unsuspecting dopes of the nearby village, people they politely tolerated but never really intermingled with before these visions began.  Alcohol flows and shenanigans ensue.  The day after the party, a violent storm begins, and the Hallorans and their entourage make their final arrangments.

sunThe one character I felt sympathy for in the entire novel was young Fancy.  She’s really the only character who utters a lick of sense.  She’s been sheltered from the outside world for the entirety of her young life, and now she may never get to experience life outside the manor as an adult.  Here she talks with Gloria, questioning her about the wisdom of the adults and trying to understand things:

“Well,” Fancy said slowly, “you all want the whole world to be changed so you all will be different.  But I don’t suppose people get changed any by just a new world. And anyway, that world isn’t any more real than this one.”

“It is though.  You forget that I saw it in the mirror.”

“Maybe you’ll get onto the other side of that mirror in the new clean world. Maybe you’ll look through from the other side and see this world again and go around crying that you wish some big thing would happen and wipe out that one and send you back here.  Like I keep trying to tell you, it doesn’t matter which world you’re in.”

I’ve struggled to write about The Sundial since I finished it over a week ago.  It’s so…odd. I  don’t exactly know what to make of it.  It’s not scary, like The Haunting of Hill House, and it’s doesn’t have the pure beauty of language that We Have Always Lived in the Castle has.  Of the four Jackson novels I’ve read, it is my least favorite, but it’s still engaging and worth reading.  Shirley Jackson had such a brilliantly twisted mind, and her novels are so unusual, especially for the time period in which they were written.  I don’t know much about her biography, but I’m very much interested in how she was able to create such vividly strange stories in what I have always imagined to be a very stifling decade (while she raised kids!)  There is a new biography about her by Ruth Franklin called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, but I think I want to read all of her works before I delve into her biography. In any case, The Sundial was witty, bizarre, and entertaining as all get out, a solid choice for your October reading list.

 

 

My First R.I.P Challenge!

ripeleven250I’m just a little bit excited about this, can you tell?

I was still feeling like a new-ish blogger last fall, and I did not participate in the challenge. As I approach my second blogging anniversary, I am eager to jump in!

This is the 11th Annual R.I.P. Challenge (Readers Imbibing Peril) hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.  You can read more about it and join here.

From September 1 to October 31, you can read books (or watch movies/shows, or play games) from these genres, perfect for chillier Autumn nights:

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Gothic
Horror
Dark Fantasy

Given my mediocre showing in reading challenges, I’ve chosen Peril the Second.

“Simply halve the requirement of Peril the First. If you choose to take on this Peril, read two books of your choosing that you feel fit the various R.I.P. categories.”

ripnineperilsecond-600x268

I haven’t quite nailed down what I’ll read to fulfill my Peril, but I’m considering Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls and Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial (since I own them both and haven’t read them yet.)  But I’d also like to include an author of color so I may read something from Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, or a mystery by Attica Locke.

In any case, I think it will be fun to read about what everyone else chooses.  I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to scary entertainment, but I do appreciate a nail-biting page-turner. If you have a creepy(ish) book you really love, please suggest it in the comments.  This should be fun!