Review: White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi

In White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi has done the thing I was afraid she wasn’t going to manage, which is to become EVEN BETTER YET in her third book than she was in her second.  She can’t keep this up much longer, right?  I mean she has to plateau at some point, right?  Helen Oyeyemi!  What will you do to stagger and amaze us next?

White is for Witching is about a set of twins, Eliot and Miranda, who live in a haunted house.  Miranda has pica, and the house hates foreigners.  As the book goes on, we come to realize that there are people in the house apart from those that its inhabitants can see, people that the women of Miranda’s family have sometimes been able to perceive.  Miranda and Eliot go off to Cambridge and South Africa (maybe), respectively, and still they are bound to each other and to the house.  Spookiness ensues.

Simon’s review of this book suggested Helen Oyeyemi might have got too experimental for her boots with this one, which filled me full of fears that she had given up on interesting plots/characters in favor of using too many words in unorganized word salad sentences.  In fact there’s just a hella lot of ambiguity and uncertainty about the sort of evil the house is wreaking, and what all the characters’ true motives are.  Which is the sort of ambiguity I can see why someone would mind it, but I do not, when the book is about a sinister haunted house.  A haunted house is scarier if you can’t lay the ghost.

Another reason I liked it (but someone else might not) is that there are multiple narrators, in varying degrees of reliability (one of them is the house.  You really can’t rely on the house to tell the truth).  I love multiple narrators.  I have done ever since I was in fourth grade and my mother bought me Caroline B. Cooney’s Among Friends, and I thought it was the coolest idea ever and swiftly went off and wrote a book my own self with multiple narrators.  One of them was a unicorn, and one was a talking book.  And at the end?  The army of men and the army of women all decided to get married, so they didn’t have to have a war after all.  Lesson learned: It is rather lame to pretend like you are going to have to have a Major Event (like a war) at the end of a book, and then for some silly reason not have to have the Major Event after all.  [Thinly veiled subtext: I learned this lesson before I left elementary school, while Stephenie Meyer never learned it at all.]

That unnecessary slighting reference to Stephenie Meyer brought to you by: Embarrassment at my nine-year-old self’s idea of what constituted a good story.

Anyway, multiple narrators.  I am a fan.  If you are not, this may not be the book for you.  Ditto for if you need to be perfectly clear on the spooky haunty happenings and what’s real and what’s not.  Otherwise, hit this up immediately.  It is damn good.  I’m only sad that Helen Oyeyemi has no further books for me to read right now.

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Stuck in a Book
Torque Control
Coffee Stained Pages
Fantasy Book Critic
The Indextrious Reader

Tell me if I missed yours!

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

I got The Little Stranger for my birthday!  And read it on the plane back home yesterday.  Not a good plane book; I should have read Changing Planes, which would have been much better, but by the time I thought of it, it was the last leg of the flight and I was trying to catch fifteen minutes of sleep so I wouldn’t die of exhaustion.  The Little Stranger would be a perfect dark-and-stormy-night type of book.  (Not that there’s any book I wouldn’t want to read at night all cozy with a thunderstorm outside – but some are more suited to it than others.)

The Little Stranger is about a Dr. Faraday who goes round to minister to a servant girl called Betty at The Hundreds, an old aristo house now peopled by its three remaining family members, Mrs. Ayres and her grown son and daughter Roderick and Caroline.  The Hundreds is coming down around them, and they are all doing their best to keep it up and running.  Dr. Faraday becomes more and more involved in their lives, while around them the house is delicately, gradually, driving them all mad.

You can see the influence of The Haunting of Hill House on this book, although it’s quite dissimilar to that.  I was mildly disappointed in the house’s tricks.  I felt like they didn’t always give you that spine prickle, particularly as the book was being narrated by a man who never saw any of these antics, but only heard about them afterwards.  However, the rest of the book, the characters and the things they all did, more than made up for it.  As is always the case in Sarah Waters’s books, the interactions between the characters are the best part of the book.  These are fully realized characters: you always want to see more of them, and the things they do are the things they would do (does that work, as a description?  I mean that even when they’re doing or saying unsympathetic or unexpected things, they continue to be who they always were).

This is a very British book – actually, I think, the most British of Sarah Waters’s books so far, the first book that it would really, really have surprised me to learn an American had written it.  I read a thing about British and American humor one time, how Americans like for their comedy shows to move from disorder to order, whereas British comedy shows tend to be of the sort where everything just goes spectacularly to hell (Fawlty Towers is a perfect example of this).  The Little Stranger is all about decay and breaking down – the house itself and its dying protests, the traditions of and belief in the aristocracy in Britain, the relationships of the family to each other and Dr. Faraday, and so forth.  Everything breaks down.  It’s sad, and Sarah Waters imbues the book with a sense of the inevitability of it all.

The servant Betty provides an epitaph to the whole thing when she says “It wasn’t fair, was it, what happened to them?”  I loved this.  It wasn’t fair.  They didn’t deserve it.  They didn’t deserve the poltergeist, and they didn’t deserve to be the ones on whom the burden of holding up the British aristocracy fell.

And what a gorgeous last sentence it has!

And as soon as I closed it, I started to whine inside my head about when is she going to write her next book, I really want to read her next book.  But you know, she just wrote one, so it’ll probably be a few years yet before her next one after this shows up.  Here are other views:

S. Krishna’s Books
A Bookworm’s World
Farm Lane Books
Back to Books
A Garden Carried in the Pocket

Tell me if I missed yours!

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

At last I have finished a novel by Shirley Jackson!  I liked the short stories I read of hers in eighth grade (“The Lottery”, predictably, and “The Possibility of Evil”), but ignored her novels for years, and then I tried to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle when I got it out of the library at my university in Colchester, and hated it.  I got about ten pages in and couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to go another page.

I have to try it again, because I loved The Haunting of Hill House.  I reluctantly bought it for 50 cents at the book fair in March, and on a whim decided to bring it with me on this trip.  Absolutely loved it.  It’s all about a Doctor Montague who decides to rent out a supposedly haunted house, hire some assistants who have had experiences with psychic phenomena, and spend some time there recording the paranormal experiences that occur.  By reading through old accounts of inexplicable things that have happened, he finds Theodora, a rather dashing cheerful clever woman, and Eleanor, an early-thirties spinster who has spent the better years of her life caring for her sick, demanding mother.  They, along with the house’s current owner Luke, come to the house to join Dr. Montague.

Eleanor is the third-person narrator of the story.  It is clear from the first that she has been kept down and treated like a child by her family, but it seems that she will be able to break free from this.  She takes her first steps towards independence when she takes her sister’s car and goes to Hill House on her own; she makes friends with Theodora and Luke and Dr. Montague, easily, straight away.  Things could be looking up for our Eleanor.

Except, of course, they aren’t.  As the book goes on, Eleanor becomes extremely susceptible to the house’s particular brand of evil, which – to be fair – is targeting her from early on.  The reader comes to trust Eleanor’s perceptions of what is happening less and less – is Theodora actually acting from the motives Eleanor ascribes to her?  Is Luke interested in Eleanor, or is he not?  Eleanor seems very sure at times, but the reader often is not.

The Haunting of Hill House is all spooky and subtle.  Very Shirley Jackson, from what I can remember of her short stories.  I am a sucker for a story about a haunted house, and this is a particularly good one.  Thanks to Nymeth for the nudge to bump this up on my reading list!

Other views:

Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot
A Striped Armchair

So Many Books

Booknotes by Lisa

Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner
Stuck in a Book
Melody’s Reading Corner

Let me know if I missed yours – so many of these say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is better, so I really must remember to try it again when I get home.