'Witching' unravels neo-Gothic nightmare

Helen Oyeyemi spins a tale about guilt and loss. Helen Oyeyemi spins a tale about guilt and loss. (Kate Eshelby)
By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / June 20, 2009
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The most chilling horror is the everyday one. The calm, slow suicide. The complacent murderer. The monster that believes in nothing so much as its own moral compass. In her third, profoundly chilling novel, Helen Oyeyemi gives readers all three for a slow-building neo-Gothic that will leave persevering readers breathless.

“White Is for Witching’’ starts out simply enough. Miranda and Eliot Silver are fraternal twins living with their father in a bed-and-breakfast in Dover, England, and readying to embark on life. Miranda suffers from pica, a disease that prompts her to eat indigestible substances. She’s just back from a stay in a psychiatric hospital as the book opens, and her father - a former food writer and pastry chef - and brother are on tenterhooks, hoping the young beauty’s newfound stability holds. This isn’t the first time the strange disorder has popped up in the family, nor is it their first tragedy. The twins’ maternal line has been plagued by troubles. Women have run off and disappeared, and the twins’ own mother was killed while working as a photojournalist in Haiti, a loss that may have triggered Miranda’s pica.

On one level, a book about loss and guilt - Miranda has a child’s belief in her culpability in her mother’s death - this is also a meditation on consumption. One culture takes in another, and those who are so consumed survive, adapt, or die. An old house holds its inhabitants securely - or in a death grip. Pica, like anorexia, allows a young woman control over her fate, and her sexuality, as well as her dinner plate. Haitian folklore adds another layer to the oddities affecting the Silvers and all those who come into contact with the family, as the soucouyant -- a kind of female spirit thief - recurs in the storybook of a classmate, the living faith of a housekeeper, and in Miranda’s consciousness.

Despite Oyeyemi’s relatively straightforward and conversational prose, this is a troubling book, at times difficult to read. In part, that’s intentional. The stark and unsentimental account of Miranda’s pica is incredibly disturbing. Her calm recital of the properties of inedible material - “onyx: it helps you hold your emotions steady; side effects of onyx: it is the sooty hand that strangles all your feeling out of you’’ - is more terrifying than any more melodramatic representation of the disease could be. And the fast shifts in voice make the family’s troubles even more real: When an outsider sees an old photo of Miranda and fails to recognize her, we, too, see how much she has changed.

Some of the difficulties built into this book are less effective. Those lightning shifts of voice, for example, sometimes break up the flow of this otherwise hypnotic work. Much of this tale’s magic comes from its nonjudgmental quality: One person’s reality may not jibe with others, and the spirits of the dead, or of the house itself, are likely to take over at any time. Since these changes can happen on a word, often in the middle of a sentence, the reader can be left momentarily stranded, the momentum of the story temporarily derailed.

But the persistent reader will find that the saga, and its casual horrors, are worth the effort. Old stories pile on the new; old ghosts climb onto younger spirits; and soon the idea of a home, or your own body, or any kind of personal integrity seems as strange as eating rocks - and about as natural.

Clea Simon is the author of several novels, most recently “Probable Claws.’’


Nan A. Talese, 227 pp., $25

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