Dover, as described by Helen Oyeyemi in her Kent-based novel White is for Witching, is a place with its identity in crisis. And it’s not only the city that is struggling to define itself.
“She heard and smelt the water at the bottom of the cliffs, but it felt like a long time before she’d walked long enough to glimpse the sea crashing and breaking against the shore, foam eating into stone. England and France had been part of the same landmass, her father had told her, until prised apart by floods and erosion. She was not sure what time it was; when she looked at the sun she could understand that it had changed position but she did not dare to say how much. There were cruise ships coming in, vast white curved blocks like severed feet shuffling across the water. She waved half-hearted welcome. She felt the wind lift her hair above her head. In daylight the water was so blue that the colour seemed like a lie and she leant over, hoping for a moment of shift that would allow her to understand what was beneath the sea” (88)
Situated precariously on the bottom edge of England, with land that literally crumbles into the sea, Dover’s identity appears to be in a state of vulnerability. It is “a fucking mess”, one character says; the maritime gateway to southern England has too many foreign refugees (mainly Kosovans, we hear) getting into fights amongst themselves as well as “pissing off the locals” (203). These “incomers” have changed the way Britishness is thought of in Dover; they have even, some would argue, “twisted” the concept of Britishness into something that seems “bad” (116). For Dover’s inhabitants, particularly teenage twins Miranda and Eliot, it is becoming more and more difficult to anchor themselves in its shifting waters.
Aside from these political / geographical troubles, Miranda and Eliot Silver, and their father Luc Dufresne are also trying to cope with the loss of Lily, the twins’ mother.
For Miranda this is particularly difficult, as the generations of Silver women share an affinity and a connection that is “older” than all of them. Even in death, great-grandmother Anna is tied “to her daughter Jennifer, to Jennifer’s stubborn daughter Lily, to Lily’s even more stubborn daughter Miranda” (118). In the ghost-filled family home in Dover, which Luc is frantically trying to fill with life and prosperity by turning it into a successful B&B, Miranda can nevertheless hear and feel the presence of the other long-lost women: “her GrandAnna laugh[s] at something Lily said” (196) in an upstairs room while haunting music, which only Miranda can hear, plays in the halls. Without the support of her mother, Miranda sees “the world in pieces” (38), and it seems as though her own body is about to crumble too, or to “concertina, bones knocking against each other” (233).
As it is, the reader bears witness to Miranda’s breakdown which drains her both physically and mentally before her family’s eyes. Her mind quakes from grief and depression that borders on insanity; not only does she hear voices and see strange things in mirrors and believe she can walk through walls into hidden rooms of the house, but she also forgets who she is: “she would need to know how old she was and she didn’t know” (131). At the same time, she suffers from pica, a disorder which means she hungers, not for food, but for plastic, dirt and, strangely enough, Dover’s very own chalk. The lack of real nutrition she ingests makes her body wither and shrink until she becomes so thin that she is practically two-dimensional, despite her father’s huge and varied efforts to get her to eat. All in all, through the deterioration of her mental and physical state, she slowly becomes “the girl who hardly even exists” (185).
But as well as the story of Miranda’s breakdown and the relationships she develops (the book is not all miserable), this novel tells the story of a house. The creepy family house in which Miranda, apparently, disappears into other dimensions and communicates with the spirits of her female ancestors. Is Miranda simply insane, or does the house really have a life of its own?
The answer to that question is for the reader to decide, but the house is certainly given a voice in this novel. ‘29 Barton Road’ narrates whole passages of this book, telling how “I was nothing like that flat of [the family’s] in London” (74) and how Miranda “wandered up and down my staircases, in and out of my rooms” (117). The house even admits to leading its inhabitants astray and trapping them in another world within its walls: “I unlocked a door in her bedroom that she had not seen before […] When she was safely down the new passageway, I closed the door behind her” (84). The house is frightening, haunting, threatening. It is not only Miranda who notices strange goings on either; on one occasion the family’s housekeepers quit abruptly and flee their accommodation, leaving a note that says:
“This house is bigger than you know! There are extra floors with lots of people on them. They are looking people. They look at you, and they never move. We do not like them. We do not like this house, and we are glad to be going away.” (57)
There are ghostly, witchy and magical elements to this novel that add to the narrative confusion, ambiguity and brilliance. In reality, it’s quite frightening. If you’re reading this review and are thinking that the set-up (i.e. generations of women linked through the centuries, a big old family home) sounds a lot like that of Katherine Webb’s The Legacy, I suppose you would not be a million miles away. However, in writing style, Webb and Oyeyemi are fathoms apart. For all the beauty of Webb’s traditional narrative structure, Oyeyemi writes non-linear prose which darts across the page between narrators and between margins; at times it seems like you are reading poetry. Where I deemed Webb’s novel original, I would say Oyeyemi’s is utterly unique. Sometimes it is hard work, but that is part of the reward. Overall the novel is chilling and deeply mesmerising, no matter how much or how little you go in for the other-worldly: 5/5 stars.
As a brief note to finish off, this short novel does what I think is an incredible job of mapping conflicting ideas of modern Britishness and Englishness, especially in its portrait of Dover, as I’ve already touched on, and in the representation of its supposedly ‘typical English family’ (hardly so, as it turns out). Even within Miranda’s family, the reader bears witness to the shift in ideas over time: her great-grandfather was the artist of patriotic World War Two cartoons, “all on the theme of plucky Brits defeating the enemy by maintaining the home front – a stout housewife planting her potatoes and taking a moment to smack one that looked just like Hitler on the head with her trowel, that sort of thing” (69). Moving down the generations, Miranda’s great-grandmother is appalled that her granddaughter Lily “didn’t know what Britannia meant” and that she said “patriotism was embarrassing and dangerous” (115). Britishness, as I said before, is in crises here. In summary, this novel has been a great one to read for this challenge.
Next week I’ll be reviewing James Long’s The Lives She Left Behind for Somerset. I’d better get cracking!