Crumbling

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)

Helen Oyeyemi's "White Is For Witching"

Helen Oyeyemi’s “White Is For Witching”

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).

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

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?

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

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.

Author Helen Oyeyemi

Author Helen Oyeyemi

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!

 

OYEYEMI, Helen. White Is For Witching. Oxford: Picador, 2009.

Featured Image: Characteristic White Cliffs of Dover

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2114912/White-Cliffs-Dover-Thousands-tons-chalk-crash-sea-large-section-collapses.html

Advertisements

Vital Organs

Benjamin Wood's "The Bellwether Revivals"

Benjamin Wood’s “The Bellwether Revivals”

Most other people who’ve read Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals, set in Cambridge, seem intent on comparing it by degrees to A Secret History and Brideshead Revisited, other novels set in elite academic environments. I’m not going to do that – primarily because *SHOCK, HORROR* I’ve not yet read either of those great works. I know, I know; I haven’t read those, I hadn’t read any science fiction or ghost tales or zombie horrors or graphic novels, or indeed many modern novels at all before this blog. What have I read?! But, hey, at least this review might be a little different to the others out there.

Oscar Lowe, “bright” and “bookish” (according to the blurb), escaped his frustrating and unhappy working-class roots early, before finishing school or realising where his thoughtful mind could take him. Now living in Cambridge and working diligently as a care assistant at Cedarbrook nursing home, the shadows of the university’s famous buildings haunt him on every street, reminding him of the world of privilege and academia that he can never be a part of. That is, until he is drawn into King’s College chapel one evening by the sound of swelling music, and meets the beautiful and intelligent medical student Iris Bellwether, as well as her frighteningly arrogant, mad-control-freak, musical prodigy, genius brother, Eden. (It’s a sign of Wood’s brilliant characterisation that I find summing up his characters in a few words nigh impossible.) So begins Oscar’s tumultuous relationship with the wealthy Bellwether family and his insight into the Cambridge circle, leading to love (for Iris), fury (at Eden), wonder (at the family’s way of life), shame (at his own), hope (for brighter prospects), fear (of losing everything) and pain (of knowing he can never truly belong).

King's College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

King’s College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

While the plot itself is extraordinarily unpredictable and profoundly moving, it is Wood’s characterisation in particular that blows me away. Every single character’s individuality has been created painstakingly. Through implicit and explicit detail, as though their lives are strains of music on the wind, readers grow to sense their loves, hates, talents, weaknesses, motivations, relationships – some of their secrets remain hidden from us throughout. Each character, however fleeting or prominent their presence in the novel, possesses enough depth to be a fascinating psychological study, and yet is so rounded and ‘real’ that they can’t be pinned down. This is truly an amazing debut, worthy of 5/5 stars.

The character of Cambridge itself is a weighty presence in the novel’s pages, and something Wood admits to having a particular relationship with:

“Like [Oscar], I did not attend the university, but I lived in Cambridge for three years […] Walking around the place, it is difficult to ignore the monuments to history that surround you. It is a greatly inspiring environment for someone who values the importance of learning, as I do, but it is also an overwhelming place for someone who is not an invited member of that world – the colleges are mostly walled off and unavailable to non-members, and there’s a feeling that you’ll somehow never be completed connected with it, as much as you peer in from outside.”

Indeed, the reader is distinctly aware of Oscar’s overwhelming feeling of separation from the academic world that is “lurking, pressing” (66) on every pavement. The “old buildings” (53) incite true fear in the character at times, the “formidable gothic […] spindles” and “giant blackened windows” a sight he loathes for the way they make everyone else feel “tiny, irrelevant, godless” (4). Compared to these formidable, institutional facades, Cedarbrook’s pretty, floral exterior is “like the genial smile of an old friend” (207); this juxtaposition is ironic considering the hope and opportunity that should be associated with the former, against the decay and death encroaching on members of the latter. Suffice it to say that admiration and criticism for the Cambridge environment flow in equal measure.

View over Cambridge

View over Cambridge

As well as the physical environment, it is the class implications of life in Cambridge that make it a unique setting in this novel. Prosperity and privilege are shown to go hand-in-hand here: the “tightness and etiquette” (266) of Cambridge traditions having been established by, and tailored to, the expectations of the private-schooled, the wealthy, the lucky-in-life, they suit Iris and her university clan down to the ground. The students live in a “private world” (18) on these “hallowed grounds” (8) and share memories and experiences from “a private source” (39). Oscar, as a result of his background, schooling, housing, work, and myriad other inescapable nuances of class that shouldn’t matter, but do, is an outsider. So different and, initially, unwelcome, is he to the usual circle that he is treated by Iris’ mother “as if he were one of her abstract paintings that she was training her eyes to appreciate” (100). So the unfortunate peculiarities of the British (or is it only English?) class system.

Johann Mattheson's 'perfect' organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

Johann Mattheson’s ‘perfect’ organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

However, through his relationship with Iris (who doesn’t share her mother’s snobbery, her father’s conservative class views or Eden’s sense of entitlement to the same degree) Oscar does begin to find a way in to the world he has previously been walled off from: a world of opportunity, of dreams. All Oscar has known from his childhood are “mouthy teens who […] blocked the smoggy corridors of nightclubs on weekends” (9) and estates where “the houses all looked the same. Square, innocuous brick-piles, clad in cheap grey stucco” (73). Cambridge – the city and the university, inextricable as they are – offers an alternative to this reality of modern, motorway-riddled England, where Oscar can escape with the rest, fantasise about the future, slowly learn to separate himself from his roots and the rest of reality. In doing so, he starts to understand the attraction of large houses and “acreage”, of the “tranquillity” (245) that removal from “civilisation” brings (245). For a time, he plays along with the family life in the manor, as though it’s “some theatre set: a trick house made of paper and paint, with nothing behind it but the brick walls of the stage” (233).

But, for one reason and another, he will never truly belong: his job will call him back to earth with a jolt; disaster will strike and wake him from his fantasy; words will be exchanged that remind him of his roots. No matter how high Cambridge – or dreams of returning to his education – let him float, or how wide his view over the world, he will never be able to have the life he fantasises, or stop feeling “lonely and directionless” (64). His line has been drawn since birth, his class and his choice to leave school early marking his destiny for life. The spirit of Cambridge, like a Greek Fate measuring the thread of Oscar’s life, will not grant him a second chance. Wavering from his destined path now only brings pain, heartache and hopelessness.

Hope, it seems, was only ever a form of madness, a way of temporarily filling a void. Hope, like music with its “swelling harmonies”, is capable of “flood[ing] the yawning space above them” (6) – but only fleetingly, leaving life all the more painful when it departs.

 

Next week I’ll be reading The Queen’s Secret by Victoria Lamb. Can it match up? Join me next week!

 

WOOD, Benjamin. The Bellwether Revivals. London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Featured Image: Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.

http://www.wallpaperdownloader.com/bing-wallpaper/images/name/TrinityCollege_20100921