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

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Fensed In

I have never read Susan Hill’s 1983 horror novel, The Woman in Black; I have never seen any theatrical or filmic production of it and, most significantly of all, I have almost no idea what the story is about. And yet, still, when the new Woman in Black film came out in 2012, I was somehow automatically sceptical. How can a story that has come from a book be scary?, I thought. What a load of poppycock.  This ignorance from a long-term literature lover and English graduate. *sigh*

As you might have sussed, until this week, I had never even flipped open the cover of a scary novel – not a single ghost tale, horror story, or gore-fest. I’d seen the odd scary film of course (or rather, I’ve been in their vicinity, even if I was tucked safely behind the sofa at the time) and I was quite confident I could identify the typical formula:

Capture final

To summarise, your senses of hearing and sight are bombarded with signs of creepdom and thus, you are creeped out. To summarise the summary, scary films require elements that cannot possibly be recreated in books.

In a book, the only sensory perception comes to us second-hand, mediated by the characters. It is a character’s ears that are pricked up by unnatural sounds and their nose that detects faint odours of decay and their eyes that bear witness to events. The reader has no senses; there is no music or creaking or darkness that we can see; only the words on the page. There are no make-you-jump moments; reading a paragraph takes longer than a sudden change in camera angle. Pace is sacrificed, our senses are sacrificed…so what’s left that’s worth getting excited about?

Well, what a journey I’ve been on in Louise West’s 50-page ghost tale, Late, set in her home county of Lincolnshire. (I know it’s not technically a novel, but I’ve been dying to read something like this and I’m also a bit behind in blogging – it kills two birds with one stone. No murderous pun intended.)

Louise West's "Late"

Louise West’s “Late”

In this short story, a teacher is working late in a dark and draughty school that is “well over one hundred years old” (2), when she hears a noise and comes face-to-face with a ghost of a young boy who has unfinished business to which he must attend. During the night that follows she experiences the fright of her life, an existential crisis, a car accident and hours of dragging herself through mud and swamp in the pitch black in an effort to survive.

Her rural location is significant to the plot throughout: the impressive Gothic school that still stands is where her nightmare begins, her lack of phone reception “this far out in the Fens” (19) leaves her completely isolated and, under the direction of the ghostly boy, she is drawn away from the main village road and into the wild Lincolnshire countryside. Initially the landscape is hostile and unwelcoming and she, “too used to bright lights and small rooms, struggled to make out any features or landmarks” (22), which makes her dependent on her ghostly tormentor. For a while, she dreams only of being rid of him and returning home to the fireside, her dogs and her vision of domesticated comfort. Soon, though, as she treks deeper and further and comes to understand her companion’s wishes, “her eyes […] adjusted to the darkness” so that she becomes aware of “the shape of the land” (25). She even begins to identify with the boy, finding his cold, tiny hand feeling warm in hers and that the “wind blew straight through her” (23) just as it did him.

The Lincolnshire Fens

The Lincolnshire Fens

Overall, the biggest thing I’ve learnt through this novella is as follows: the suspense in a scary book may come to us indirectly, through someone else’s perception, but the fear the words inspire could not be more personal. The image of the ghost isn’t given to us ready-prepared (as it would be in a film); the reader’s imagination has to do most of the work. This, I can now see, is a far scarier tool.

Brilliantly and thrillingly written, I can’t wait to read something longer by Louise West. A worthy 4/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Berlie Doherty’s Deep Secret. Get reading!

WEST, Louise. Late: A Ghostly Tale. Marston Gate: Amazon, 2013.

Featured image: ‘Getting Late, Lincolnshire Fens’, a painting by Bob Armstrong.

http://www.kentmerehouse.co.uk/gallery.htm