I was very keen to read 'White is for Witching' - at face value, it looks like a curious, mysterious, quixotic novel with lots to offer. Sadly, it gets off to a bad start and gets worse. The book has a fairly vague premise, alluding to a girl who eats chalk and plastic, and who potentially went mad after her mother died (although the madness may have been caused by hitting her head on the fireplace) and themes of loss, memory, grief and alienation. It uses four or five different narrators - often within the same chapter - and follows the characters from their house in Dover to university and then back home again.
The start of the book is confusing, using four (or more) different voices to narrate, switching suddenly with little warning (often a word by itself in the middle of a blank line). It feels like an 'artsy' novel gone wrong - it tries to be clever without really succeeding. I felt like the tone was slightly awkward all the way through, putting me in mind of one of those books you read for English GCSE without really understanding it. For a while, I gave it the benefit of the doubt, believing that the author was using the tone to further the themes or feel of the book, but when you come across sentences like 'she wasn't angry, she was just being deontological' it's easy to lose any and all affection for the book. The narrative itself feels disrupted and the plot doesn't seem to develop or advance in any coherent way.
Sometimes it's quite hard to figure out what's going on in the book; it takes a while to figure out who is who, who is dead and who is alive, which country people are in, and what is going on. It's not particularly easy or pleasurable to read. Sometimes the events in the book feel very random, or thrown in to tick particular boxes; whilst the theme of grief does run quite well through the whole book, completely pervading some of the characters, other themes seem to be clumsily wedged in. There's a reference to alienation on the back cover (this may well change - I saw an uncorrected proof) but the only real episode where this comes to light is a case where one of the characters is alienated because they're mistaken for someone else!
A lot of the plot seems somewhat arbitrary and random - there's one particular part where a character goes into a bar, sees a guy she saw at school a few months ago and barely remembers the name of, kisses him and then leaves. He crops up a few more times, but it doesn't really have any lasting impression in the book, and serves no real purpose, aside from adding to the whimsical nature of the character in question. The book does seem quite spooky and mysterious sometimes, with the dead making regular appearances, but it's also quite incomprehensible, so you don't really know whether it's being mysterious or just poorly written. I'd recommend that the author reads something like Weaveworld by Clive Barker (where did Immacolata come from? etc.) or the Hyperion / Endymion saga by Dan Simmons (what is the Shrike? what happened in those 271 years?) to get an understanding of how to build and occasionally answer mystery, but still write clearly.
The book does improve in the second half when some of the characters go to university - it gets a bit easier to follow and slightly more satisfying to read - but only mildly. The book wraps up fairly inconclusively and unsatisfyingly; you're still left thinking 'why did I read this?'. In some ways, the style (but not the content) feels quite similar to Vellum by Hal Duncan - you can't quite decide for a while whether it's incoherent or brilliant. I'm sure the critics will argue over the book, in much the same way as people argued over whether Jackson Pollock created rubbish smears of paint on a canvas or works of creative genius. However, having read an interview with the author (on The Times website) she admits that she 'cannot account for everything that happens' so I'm more of the opinion that it's an incoherent mess of a book, and certainly not one I would recommend to anyone.