Jul 21, 2014

Reading Notes: White is for Witching, Thorn, A Tale for the Time Being

White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: Finally, my first Helen Oyeyemi! White is for Witching is an ambiguous and deeply unsettling haunted house story that has always been recommended to me in an “if you like Shirley Jackson, please try this” sort of way. The comparison is very much apt, though there’s also plenty to Oyeyemi that’s uniquely her own.

White is For Witching is narrated by four different characters, including the haunted house in Dover at the centre of the story. It took me a while to really grasp what this novel’s title meant, and I think the moment I did was the moment when it all fell into place for me. Oyeyemi slowly unveils a layered story about racism, the legacy of historical wrongs, and the way these shape the lives of the past- and present-day characters. There are also plenty of complex relationships along the way, including Miranda’s romance with Ore, a girl she meets when they’re both students at Cambridge. Think The Little Stranger with postcolonial undertones in addition to Shirley Jackson and you’ll have a good idea of what this novel is like. I’m really looking forward to reading more of Oyeyemi’s work.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani
“Your Highness, you have seen enough of the world to know that there is never only one truth, one side of a story. Perhaps your sources are true; I do not doubt they faithfully reported what they understood. But perhaps I am also telling you some part of the truth. To say that your sources lied, or that I do now, is to claim knowledge of the unknown.”
Thorn by Intisar Khanani: This retelling of “The Goose Girl” gave my beloved Shannon Hale’s novel of the same title a run for its money as my favourite version of this tale. The main reason why I was so impressed with Thorn is that it’s a novel that is deeply concerned with justice and power. In Khanani’s retelling, the princess’s time as a goose girl means she becomes engaged with her fellow workers’ political concerns — namely the stark inequalities in access to justice between the rich and the poor. Not only that, but the power differential between disenfranchised goose girl Alyrra and the prince she was meant to marry is not only explored, but kind of a major plot point.

As if this wasn’t enough, Thorn features an antagonist who is “not just a sorceress following a bloody oath”, but a character with complicated motivations of her own. I’ll leave you with a strong recommendation that you read Aarti’s excellent review of this book, and also with a parting quote that made my heart sing. I love how lately I’ve been coming across a lot of examples of complex romance that’s built around negotiation and the slow developing of trust.
I take a step forward, so that I am barely a handspan away from him, and rest my other hand on his chest, feeling the rise and fall of each breath. “I have no doubt of it,” I say, because I cannot yet tell him I love him, because we need more time without games and deceit between us to find such love.

A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: Memory is entirely to blame for this one, and as usual she was right. I loved this book like whoa. It is, as Memory put it, “a gorgeously written, meticulously constructed piece of fiction about how we tell and react to stories, about recollection, and about the self.” It’s about history too, and taking a stance, and how feeling like you haven’t done enough can slowly poison you, and perhaps even about learning to be kind to yourself.

The most impressive thing of all is how Ozeki explores these themes through a cast of characters whose lives couldn’t be more different. There’s Nao, the Japanese teenager whose diary is at the heart of this story; there’s Ruth, a middle-aged writer who finds Nao’s diary on the small Canadian island where she lives; there’s old Jiko, Nao’s 104-year-old Buddhist nun great-grandmother. They’re separated by time and circumstances, but linked by emotional ties and by their common humanity.

There’s plenty here about time and memory and storytelling and impermanence that hit me right in the heart. A Tale for the Time Being hit a lot of my buttons and tackled many of my current concerns, so it was absolutely the right book at the right time for me.

Now go read Memory’s review.


  1. I actually liked WIFW least of the three I've read - mostly because it just confused me! My favourite is easily her most recent novel (Boy, Snow, Bird) which I thought was phenomenal.

  2. You sure have been doing a lot a wonderful reading lately, haven't you? In that I-can't-possibly-live-long-enough-to-read-all-the-books-I-reallly-want-to-read sense, I'm happy that the first and last of these are already on my wish list, so I only need add Thorn. Which, oh my gosh, may be the one I now want most--it sounds soooo good!!! Though I do so want to read everything Oyeyemi's ever written since falling head over heals in love with her writing with Boy, Snow, Bird. (Though the ending of that book left me feeling sorely uneasy, I was blown away by that book up until those last 20 pages.) I hope the rest of your summer holds many more bookish treats (despite what that does to my wish list)!!!

  3. Now that you've read White is for the Witching, you have to read Boy, Snow, Bird. I love the hell out of that book though it has its problems.

    A Tale for the Time Being is such a good good book. :-) Love your reviews.

  4. Simon, I can totally understand feeling that way about it. I think it helped that I went in expecting lots of ambiguity and an experimental style. I'm really looking forward to reading Boy, Snow, Bird! Hopefully before the end of the year.

    Debi: I'm bracing myself for the ending of BSB, though it sounds well worth reading nonetheless. And read Thorn! I think it's my favourite of the three, though they were all amazing reads.

    Vasilly: Aww, thanks! BSB soon, promise!

  5. Hahaha, I love how many people are like "BOY SNOW BIRD! Except, like, that ending...?" My sentiments exactly.

    I'm so pleased you liked Tale for the Time Being. It's a strange book, and I felt very risky about giving it to my mother for her birthday a few years ago, just because it's so WEIRD. But she liked it. Phew.

  6. Yay White is For Witching. Like a lot of people I wasn't sure what to make of the ending, what's your take on it? My copy of Boy Bird Snow is on its way right now so I can read it as soon as I finish Mr Fox.

  7. I wondered why my review of A TALE OF THE TIME BEING had so many hits today. :)

    THORN sounds absolutely wonderful, but my library doesn't have it. :( I'll have to keep an eye out at the used bookstore.

    1. It will probably be tough to find as it is self-published, Memory. Worth buying online if you have the means!

  8. I am so, so glad that you loved both Thorn and A Tale for the Time Being. Now I just need to read White is for Witching, which is conveniently located on my shelf :)

  9. Thanks so much for your wonderful review of Thorn! I am so glad you enjoyed it. I'm definitely a fan of the more complex romance (no insta-love! no!). :D Thanks again!

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  11. aw these books look and sound great. I've been meaning to read A Tale for the Time Being for ages.


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