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White OleanderWhite Oleander by Janet Fitch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Oleanders could live through anything, they could stand heat, drought, neglect, and put out thousands of waxy blooms. So what did they need poison for?… Maybe it was… in the soil, something about L.A., the hatred, the callousness, something we didn’t want to think about, that the plant concentrated in its tissues. Maybe it wasn’t a source of poison, but just another victim.”

Women are like oleanders; proud, beautiful and deadly. Their delicate femininity is the very thing that attracts their prey. Snap a stalk, pluck a flower, bruise a dagger-like leaf and a curious fluid seeps from the wound; like deadly breast milk.

This dark tale of mothers, daughters and the enigma of ‘womanhood’ is told through the eyes of Astrid Magnussen, a thirteen year old girl who finds her idyllic life shattered when her mother Ingrid gets sent to jail for murder. Defenceless, Astrid is left to face the world alone, and begins what becomes a five-year hand-me-down existence through a string of foster homes where she learns the brutal realities of life. Caught between her mothers’ uncompromising, bloody-minded philosophy of the ‘warrior woman’ and her own intense, contradictory experiences; Astrid learns how her kind get spoiled, and wakes up to the cold fact that even mothers can be severely lacking in the very thing that makes one a ‘woman’.

I loved everything about this novel. The characters, the settings, each and every turn of phrase which is so painstakingly written. This comes very close to capturing the ‘genius’ of women’s literature. It’s a relief to read something that makes no apologies for what it is; a book about women for women. Fitch is a brave, bold author who is unashamedly feminine in her approach to the subject of mother-daughter relations and everything else in between. But when I say it is feminine, I by no means imply that it is mushy, cute stuff scattered with sprinkles. Quite the contrary, it is intimate, raw with a sheer clarity for memory, place and emotion. This novel tries to get inside the mind of a woman, of how the world looks and feel and is recorded in the impressionable mind of an adolescent girl who still has enough of the child in her to be relating to things through the five senses.

As a reader who doesn’t go much for women’s literature, this novel has a quality and ‘frequency’ of feminine that I admire. It pays respect to Plath and Woolf by having characters that go beyond dumbed-down stereotypes. It also helps that Fitch’s writing is impeccable. She molds her words with a precision that makes my skin tingle and makes metaphors full of grace and beauty.

Fitch’s story grapples with the difficulties of vicious, poisonous love, and identity, as Astrid is exposed to many different female role models throughout her formative years. However Astrid is quick to learn that all these women who harbour love and hate in uneven quantities; are all products of the men who have touched their lives.

“Women always put men first. That’s how everything got so screwed up.”

Fitch also looks at the turbulent world of foster care by revealing many undesirable aspects of the system. I guess what I liked most was how Ingrid and Astrid end up in the bowels of the ‘system’, and go through their own hell of sorts. Coming out the other side in one piece is their common hope; and each finds their own methods of sustaining their souls against the loneliness they must endure. The story is mainly centred around Astrid, and the difficulty she has with connecting with her mother. What was once a simple relationship, which consisted of admiration and awe is no longer valid. The physical separation also serves to sever the ties that held them together. Astrid eventually comes to blame her situation on her mothers’ selfish act of revenge, and slowly becomes more alienated from her.

Despite their strength and stoicism, Fitch underlines the emotional dependence between Astrid and Ingrid that is infuriating yet fundamental at the same time. Ingrid’s futile attempts at initiating Astrid in the ways of womanhood are thwarted, as Astrid rebels against the threat of becoming like her mother, but is also seen to covet her iron-will that she so desperately needs. In time, Astrid learns how to conduct herself through the haphazard world; and even comes to appreciate her mothers’ advice:

“The phoenix must burn to emerge.”

Ingrid and Astrid both burn and emerge from the hardships they endure, as hard and as refined as diamonds.

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