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White is for Witching

“Who do you believe?” a voice asks us towards the end of this delicate, enthralling nightmare. “Our talk depends on the fact that you weren’t there and you don’t know what happened.”

This is the crux of Oyeyemi’s remarkable, shape-shifting tale. As with her previous two novels, White Is for Witching concerns things that aren’t what they seem.

Two young twins, Miranda and Eliot Silver, have been brought to live in a giant old house in Dover, inherited by their mother. They inspect the wide corridors and the ancient lift and are “well pleased” with their new home. “Wicked,” Eliot decides, and Miranda, in the same breath, “Magic.”

But in their teenage years tragedy strikes: their mother is murdered while on a photographic assignment in Haiti.

It hits the already troubled Miranda (Miri) the hardest. She suffers from a condition called pica, which would be straightforward anorexia if it didn’t come with an irrepressible desire to devour non-food items such as chalk and plastic.

After her mother’s death her psychological condition deteriorates, gradually changing her beyond all recognition, until she becomes, as a catty school acquaintance aptly puts it, “the girl who hardly even exists.” Her skeletal, haunted appearance could be attributed to her eating disorder and grief, if it weren’t for the Silver residence seeming to house the spirits of dead people in its walls, and to harbour designs on the fate of its living inhabitants.

Shifting deftly back and forth between the voices of Miri, Eliot and Ore (the friend Miri makes during her brief time at Cambridge), Oyeyemi serves up the familiar tropes of classic horror: mysterious apples appearing out of season; ghostly figures who picnic in the garden; and a Creole housekeeper, Sade, who wards off evil spirits with chillies.

But whenever the terror threatens to become overly baroque it is balanced by moments of genuine pathos – Miri’s father dreaming up recipes to persuade her to eat, for example.

The narrative oscillates between the mundane and the supernatural, and it is this skilful blend of the fantastic and the everyday that makes it resonate so chillingly. While ghosts may skulk inside the house, the horrors lurking outside are equally alarming: from the immigrant detention centre nearby, where an inmate hangs himself, to the casual racism that Ore (who is black and has been raised by white adoptive parents) endures from her BNP-supporting cousins.

The Silver home may harbour ghosts, yet to Ore, the walls of her college are just as menacing. “Walls and windows forbade me,” she tells us. “They pulled at me and said, You don’t belong here.”

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who has written so much in such a short time (she is only 24), Oyeyemi thinks of herself as more of a reader than a writer. “There are sooo many books in the world I haven’t read,” she said in an early interview, “sometimes I feel as if they’re all piled on top of my head weighing me down and saying, ‘Hurry up.’”

This is borne out in White Is for Witching, which is thick with references to different traditions – from African-Caribbean folklore to Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll and Poe (one is reminded particularly of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, in which the inhabitants of a grand old house are all, in their different ways, suffocated by its history).

However, the allusions are laid on with playful irreverence: Miri thinks Poe is awful – “If he ever met me he’d probably punch me on the nose.” And Oyeyemi invites us to be complicit in her literary alchemy, drawing our attention to the unreliability of her narrators and the tale’s many layers of fabrication. (“Easy to see the solution when you’re not in the story, isn’t it?” says Eliot.)

Most intriguingly of all, she gently teases our susceptibility to her craft even as she uses it. “There is nothing mysterious and Gothic about a crack-up,” Miri’s mother tells her, crossly – just as the reader is being seduced by the mysterious and Gothic world of the book itself.

Yet, for all this trickery, Oyeyemi’s writing is vividly emotional – never more so than in Miranda’s plaintive appeal towards the end, when she begs to be allowed to escape from the story. “Please have her get out and run off the page al­together,” she entreats us, “to somewhere secret where words like happy and good will never find her.”

In the end, this isn’t a fantasy about ghosts and witches. It is really about memory and belonging, love and loss.

White is for Witching
Helen Oyeyemi
Picador, 256pp, £14.99