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September 13, 2009

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Horrors of the refugee journey

HELEN Oyeyemi's eerie third novel features a young woman who has a strange eating disorder and lives with her twin brother and widowed father in a haunted house across the street from a cemetery full of unmarked graves.

On the surface, this setup might appear best suited to the young adult fiction market, but Oyeyemi knows that ghost stories aren't just for kids. And "White Is for Witching" turns out to be an unconventional coming-of-age story.

Miranda, or Miri, as she's called, suffers from pica, a disorder that compels her to eat foreign objects. "She crammed chalk into her mouth," her brother explains. "She hid the packaging at the bottom of her bag and threw it away when we got to school. But then there'd be cramps that twisted her body, pushed her off her seat and lay her on the floor, helplessly pedaling her legs."

The novel was published in England as "Pie-kah" (the pronunciation of Miri's affliction), a less sensational title that grounds the story in the girl's psychic state rather than in supernatural elements.

After his wife, who works as a photo-journalist, is killed on assignment in Haiti, Miri's father takes sole control of the family's ancestral home in the southeastern coastal town of Dover, which the couple have converted into a bed-and-breakfast. But the house, which has its own spirited personality, has other ideas.

It frightens off the hired help and even insists on narrating some of the story. ("One evening she pattered around inside me ... and she dragged all my windows open, putting her glass down to struggle with the stiffer latches. I cried and cried for an hour or so.")

Another spectral presence, known as Goodlady, may be a figment of Miri's active imagination.

Everything changes when a new housekeeper, a Yoruba woman named Sade who has "tribal marks' scarred on her face and practices juju in the kitchen, isn't scared off. In fact, she stays even when Miri goes away to college and her brother takes up an internship in South Africa. At Cambridge, Miri befriends an African adoptee named Ore, and at that point the novel begins to lose focus.

For a while, Ore's story takes center stage. Subplots abound (including attacks against refugees and violent happenings at an Immigration Removal Center), but they rarely advance the main plot or refer back to Miri's life in any meaningful way.

Throughout, however, the theme of displacement, both cultural and personal, recurs.

Miri's illness, the "pie-kah" of the English title, provides a clue as to how the apparently disparate story elements relate. Could it be that England, as a body, is systematically rejecting its foreign population?

Perhaps a statement is being made about English xenophobia. What's more likely is that Oyeyemi's story is suffering ever so slightly under the weight of a political agenda.

As in Toni Morrison's "Beloved" or Chris Abani's "Song For Night," the supernatural elements of "White Is For Witching" serve to remind the characters, and Oyeyemi's readers, of horrifying historical circumstances.

Although she may rely on some too familiar narrative ploys, Oyeyemi clearly appreciates that some crimes (such as slavery or genocide or, in this case, institutional racism) are so heinous that the conventions of realist fiction seem woefully inadequate to describe them. She makes us glad to suspend disbelief.


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