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Should the laws of physics apply? Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching

Should the laws of physics apply to a novel? There are readers who,  not without reason, demand that yes, the laws of gravity, and thermodynamics must apply at all times if the work is to be taken seriously.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

For example, if a character is to cross a room, they should do so – with or without purpose (for psychology within the novel is a whole different ball game) –  obeying the laws of motion, where mass, force and acceleration combine to produce movement.

To put it another way, a house should not be able to propel a character through its rooms.

This is, of course, rubbish. When you pick up a novel you are automatically negotiating with the author that famous suspension of disbelief. You know the characters and events are not ‘real’, but for all the reasons we value literature you are prepared to get past that fact – if the novelist is good.

Helen Oyeyemi is a very good novelist, and her latest novel White is for Witching takes liberties left, right, and center with reality and physics. One of her characters is a house who feels no inhibition in propelling characters in and out of her doors.

There are two perfectly valid reasons why a reader doesn’t need to object to this type of propulsion in Oyeyemi’s novel.

The first is that the novel is in the best tradition of gothic, where the supernatural becomes a way of describing the psychological and the  physical. The haunted house in Dover , #29 Barton Road is not just a house with a mind and motives for harming, it is also way of looking at identity, bodily integrity, madness and four generations of women. This is a novel that is about the death and dissapearance of a young woman,  Miranda, but it is also very much a novel about eating-disorders, about mental illness, about belonging, and about home – so is it any wonder that a house participates.

The second, and more immediately important reason is that Oyeyemi’s skill as a storyteller lures you in. Her language constantly re-negotiates the terms of that writer-reader contract, making you give her leeway to thumb up her nose at Newton.

Take the opening three salvos of the novel – told by Miranda’s lover, a young woman called Ore, by Miranda’s twin Eliot, and by the house #29 Barton Rd:

Where is miranda?


MIranda Silver is in Dover, in the ground beneath her mother’s house.
Her throat is blocked with a slice of apple
(to stop her speaking words that may betray her)
her ears are filled with earth
(to keep her from hearing sounds that will confuse her)
her eyes are closed, but her heart thrums hard like hummingbird wings.



Miri is gone.
Just gone. We’d had an argument. It was dark outside. Gusts of wind tangled in the apple trees around our house and dropped fruite onto the roof, made it sound like someone was tapping on the walls in the attic. Morse code for let me out, or something weirder. The argument was a stupid one that opened up a murky little mouth to take in other things. Principally it was about this pie I’d baked for her. She wouldn’t eat any of it, and she wouldn’t let me.


29 barton road:
Miranda is at home

(homesick, home sick)

Miranda can’t come in today Miranda has a condition called pica she has eaten a great deal of chalk – she really can’t help herself – she has been very ill – Miranda has pica she can’t come in today, she is stretched out inside a wall she is feasting on plaster she has pica

try again:

Those three distinctive voices, the first with its mystery and shades of fairy-tales, the second factual focussing on motives and meaning, and then that strange, strange final voice struggling with punctuation and meaning and reality, and yet it’s the one that seems to hold the answers.

What’s all the more interesting about the novel is that Oyeyemi dispenses with suspense from the outset, one of the usual tools for re-negotiating that contract. When you’re dying to find out what happens to a character you’ll accept almost any amount of chicanery and fantasy – in White is for Witching you know from the outset that the main character, Miranda, is dead.  And as you read her story, told through the eyes of  those closest to her (including the house), and start to feel for her, you are ever sure of her tragic trajectory.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi from Picador on Vimeo.

2 Responses to “Should the laws of physics apply? Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching”

  1. Henry Grodsk says:

    Over on Our Man in Gda?sk, I’ve made something of a sport of finding inconsistencies (sometimes with the basic laws of physics rather than just with verisimilitude) in the works of Polish writers (less so lately, as I am on a winning streak of good writers). I sometimes feel guilty for pointing out that, for example, a motorbike engine that disturbs a conversation on page 12 should also disturb the same conversation on page 11, or that one character forgets to eat for over a day but my excuse is that the authors asked for it: they set the novel or story up as something that is happening in the real world. You have to be very good to get away with that kind of thing. Glengarry Glenross manages it (Ricky Roma is so far ahead of everyone else that losing the Lingk contract shouldn’t affect his place at the top of the board) and so does Raymond Chandler (who killed Sternwood’s chauffeur?) but I can’t think of too many others…

    Glengarry Glenross:
    Raymond Chandler:

    The noisy/not-noisy motorbike:
    The hunger-immune professor:
    Lucky Streak:

  2. Already bought this after seeing her at an author talk. Was already looking forward to it but will make it next on my list now.

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