Janet Fitch’s White Oleander has me gasping for breath. I have never seen any book play with words as efficiently and cleverly as White Oleander does. Figures of speech are Fitch’s toys, and literary power trembles at her fingertips.
White Oleander is poetry in paragraphs, the simplest and strongest of language laid out in front of you. You could take an arbitrary chunk of this book, break the sentences appropriately, and have a brilliant poem to paint the inside of your skin with. She compares the sky with a yellow bruise, talks about wiping dreams off counters, and "combs her hair to watch the sparks fly from the ends".
I don’t know if I agree with this, but I read somewhere that there is always this divide between male and female writers—that female writers mostly use more words than they need, and sometimes plant more flowers than acceptable. If it is true, I could burst with unadulterated gratitude that female writers exist, and that there are hands that sculpt metaphors so beautifully.
“They wanted the real mother, the blood mother, the great womb, mother of fierce compassion, a woman large enough to hold all the pain, to carry it away. What we needed was someone who bled...mothers big enough, wide enough for us to hide in... mothers who would breathe for us when we could not breathe anymore, who would fight for us, who would kill for us, die for us.”
The book, at around 450 odd pages, revolves around the gradual development of the narrator's relationship with her mother. Although this is a platitudinous theme, as the narrator attempts to comprehend her mother, she tears her personal webs as well. Against the somewhat dirty backdrop of a mosaic of ever-changing homes, stories, and lives, the narrator understands herself by wiping the rosy tint off her own glasses.
“I wanted to tell her not to entertain despair like this. Despair wasn't a guest, you didn't play its favorite music, find it a comfortable chair. Despair was the enemy."
As you sit alongside Astrid and understand the world as she sees it, you can feel the injustice meted out to her. But she also finds beauty and power and love in the grime; she finds hands to hold, gradually unfolds like a lotus, and gives you hope while wrenching your gut. Throughout the book, Astrid tries to live up to her mother, Ingrid—a mystifying, rare thing. As the former bounces from foster home to foster home, she carries the weight of her mother’s words, and watches her change colour.
Through Astrid’s eyes, we learn more about Ingrid than about herself. Fitch has done a wonderful job of creating this extraordinarily unlikable character—whom you cannot help but admire. Our view of Ingrid changes with Astrid’s view of Ingrid—who goes from being a thing of matchless beauty to being a monster, a skilful puppeteer who uses words to birth, resuscitate, or kill.
“You were my home, Mother. I had no home but you.”
And what magnificent storytelling! Alexandra Lang from the New York Magazine recognised Fitch's writing as having “trippy, visceral power.” The informal narrative jerks you, and demands that you notice what you're standing among. It grips your shoulders and tells you to train your vision to be more perceptive, to name every single colour of the overlap.
“How could anybody confuse truth with beauty, I thought as I looked at him. Truth came with sunken eyes, bony or scarred, decayed. Its teeth were bad, its hair gray and unkempt. While beauty was empty as a gourd, vain as a parakeet. But it had power. It smelled of musk and oranges and made you close your eyes in a prayer.”
Fitch's language makes me feel childlike, takes sparkles from firecrackers and fixes them back in my eyes. I was Astrid, and the air smelled of poison. It was refreshing how Fitch’s descriptions slap you on the face word after word, and yet render you unable to bear the thought of staying away from the book for too long. Her words remind me of school, of novels hidden beneath classroom desks, of memories too precious to pull out. Her words crawl into my mind, take over my life, and give it fresh direction.
And sometimes (most times, actually!), that's all one needs.