Review: White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Carrie O'Grady on a ghost story that lacks both a story and a proper ghost

Early spring is an odd time for a boom in ghost stories, with Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger and Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game already high in the charts. Now there's this supernatural tale by Helen Oyeyemi, who made her name with two novels about ghosts and the gods - both written before she was 25.

Anyone who has read those earlier books, The Icarus Girl and The Opposite House, will find themselves in familiar territory, as Oyeyemi revisits a few of their themes: haunted houses, unquiet memories, female insanity, twins, eating disorders. The twins are Eliot and Miranda (or Miri), precocious teenagers who make jokes about heraldic penguins. Their mother, Lily, dies in Haiti, a gunshot victim, and thereafter Eliot watches Miranda descend into a fog of depression and madness. She develops an eating disorder, pica, that makes her want to chew on chalk, pebbles, dirt - anything but food; it also affected her great-grandmother, GrandAnna, who suffered a great loss in the same Devon house many years ago. That house - stay with me, here - is also monitoring Miri's decline, and telling us how it feels. Saturated in GrandAnna's legacy of misery, it blights the lives of the twins' family. At least, that's the basic idea - I think. White Is for Witching is written so elliptically that it can be hard to follow. It opens with four pages of poetic, disjointed writing that makes almost no sense until you have finished the book - which would be fine if the remaining 241 pages swept you off your feet, but the whole novel is sadly unengaging.

Part of the problem is that, although Oyeyemi is undoubtedly interested in ghosts, she may not be so interested in ghost stories. Why else would she start her book with Miri - a pale, clever, outsiderish girl who could have stepped straight from an Edward Gorey illustration - already insane? We meet her as she is coming out of a six-month spell in the psychiatric hospital, and she seems on the way to recovery. Surely this breaks one of the first rules of storytelling: things have to get worse before they get better. Has the house worked its mischief before we even came in? As for the ghosts, they barely make an appearance until quite late in the narrative. And even then, one of the most potentially creepy scenes is broken when the doorbell rings and a boy - a real, live, totally unimportant boy - comes in with a bunch of flowers.

All this may seem petty. But without a tight structure and a carefully controlled build-up, a suspense story simply cannot function. It may be that Oyeyemi is so intoxicated by words and ideas and the scenes playing out in her head that she is unable to consider her own work objectively. Certainly there are bits of novelese here that shatter any remaining illusion on the part of the reader: "I am very concerned that this will not end well," Miri remarks stiffly at one point.

The best part of the book, in fact, is the most ordinary. Miranda goes off to Cambridge and meets a girl called Lind Ore, who conveys the dislocation and alienation she feels on becoming one of the very few black students at the university. This no doubt draws on Oyeyemi's own experience, and Ore's narrative is more interesting and moving than anything that happens to the twins. The language here is simpler and plainer, too, which helps.

This is a ghost story without much of a ghost, or a story. And, like a spectre with no one to haunt, it seems destined to fade soundlessly away.

• To order White Is for Witching for £13.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to


Carrie O'Grady

The GuardianTramp

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