Book Reviews

White Oleander * Janet Fitch

WhiteoleandercoverWhat would you do if your mother was taken away? Just before those precious years of adolescence, your dear and beloved mother would be jailed for killing her lover. For poisoning him with the stems of the Oleander flower.

What would you do if you were cast from house to house, from foster family to foster family and you would discover the true nature of yourself and the deadly nature of your mother. The poison keeps dripping still.

That beautiful girl, she was a universe, bearer of these words that rang like gongs, that tumbled like flutes made of human bones.


I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, and would encourage anyone who can appreciate a well written novel to buy this book. Considering this is Janet Fitch‘s first novel, it is an amazing piece of literature which keeps you spellbound from beginning to end. When I was about 100 pages into the book, I already knew that this was going to be a new favourite of mine. Now that I’ve finished it, I can honestly say that this is one of the most raw books I’ve ever read.

It’s a very beautifully written novel about a young girl coming of age in the foster care system, and gradually hardening towards the world. What’s wonderful is the way she finds a strange beauty in all the painful experiences she goes through. You really do feel like you went through them with her by the end and that is was rich, eye opening experience.

Astrid grows up looked after by her hippie single mother Ingrid, a Swedish-American poet, who she adores. But when Ingrid finally loses control of her wild temper and murders a lover who has cruelly dumped her, Astrid is on her own, passed from foster home to foster home. She spends a year with Starr, a former topless dancer turned Born-Again-Christian and her family, and bonds with the woman’s quiet and studious son, but her time there is over when she falls for the ex-dancer’s carpenter boyfriend (she is both looking for a father and a lover) and Starr tries to shoot her. She is used as cheap labour by a vile suburban housewife called Marvel (and thrown out when she befriends the next door neighbour, an African-American escort come prostitute), and is treated almost as a prisoner by an Argentinian aristocrat who has a whole host of foster girls working for her. Her troubles appear to be at an end when a caring case-worker finds a home for her with kind and sensitive former actress Clare Richards. But Clare is a depressive whose marriage is on the rocks, and Astrid’s odyssey is not over… All the way through her troubled teenage years, Astrid is kept going by her skill as an artist, and it is this that gives her the strength in the end to make her own way, and to finally challenge Ingrid about their life together and what Ingrid did.

This is a wonderfully vivid novel, with a host of larger-than-life characters. The atmosphere of California is vividly brought to life, in all its variety, and Fitch is particularly good at writing about emigre culture in West Coast America. Astrid is an enjoyable narrator, and Fitch writes very well about her art and how it sustains her through some very hard times. I just wish we’d had a little bit more about her life in Berlin after she decided to leave California, and her relationship with Paul, another foster-child artist. And I would have also liked to learn a bit more about Ingrid, about whom Fitch (and Astrid) were ambiguous.

I found the lover that Ingrid murders a bit too grotesque for me to be convinced she would have killed him, and found the relationship between Ingrid and Clare later a tiny bit unbelievable – Ingrid suddenly started behaving like an arch villainess. Were we meant to regard Ingrid as psychotic or actually to sympathize with her? It was quite hard to tell, sometimes.

“I regret nothing. No woman with any self-respect would have done less. The question of good and evil will always be one of philosophy’s most intriguing problems, up there with the problem of existence itself. I’m not quarreling with your choice of issues, only with your intellectually diminished approach. If evil means to be self-motivated, to live on one’s own terms, then every artist, every thinker, every original mind, is evil. Because we dare to look through our own eyes rather than mouth cliches lent us from the so-called Fathers. To dare to see is to steal fire from the Gods. This is mankind’s destiny, the engine which fuels us as a race. ”

Definitely would read again. Once my heart stops beating so frantically.


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