Late one night some years ago, I left the TV on and the film adaptation of Janet Fitch's White Oleander starring Michelle Pfeiffer came on. I initially thought 'I'll get up and switch that off in a minute' only to find myself oddly transfixed and absorbed by it. I meant to read the book and then kept remembering and forgetting its existence as is sometimes the way with these things.
I then thought I'd buy it on my Kindle, only to find no Kindle edition, and then by happenstance saw it whilst in the Oxfam bookshop, and felt like it was 'there for me'. I have to say I'm starting to fall in love a bit with getting books from Charity Shops. I've come across loads of bargains lately, and when you consider the price of books now, it is worth digging.
I've been struggling with my reading this month, White Oleander is the first entry for August. It hasn't helped that I opened up a complete box set of The West Wing. I was ahead of myself in the challenge anyway so I'm hoping that a bit of a break won't do me any harm, I was reading at a ferocious pace and kind of burnt out a bit I think. White Oleander, a past choice for Oprah's Book Club, somehow struck just the right tone to get me back 'into it.'
The books protagonist is twelve year old Astrid Magnusson, her mother is Ingrid Magnusson. Ingrid is a self absorbed, imperious, narcissistic poet with an odd set of rules as to what makes any person she comes across 'a person of value'. She simultaneously neglects and controls Astrid, forgetting she exists most of the time and then attempting to mould her at others. Astrid lives in her shadow but also in a bizarre communion with her. Suddenly, the true extent of Ingrid's emotional imbalance is revealed when she kills her ex boyfriend Barry for having the temerity to reject her and is sent to prison.
The bulk of the novel now begins and concerns Astrid's journey through the care system, traipsing through a succession of foster homes and schools. Most of the placements are shockingly unsuitable and Astrid who has never really been allowed her own personality, has to try and be someone else for each new family. Though Ingrid is incarcerated, her ability to psychologically bully Astrid and manipulate her from afar continues. Ingrid is truly a chilling villain, not over-written so as to become pantomime but written in such a way as to make you feel she is truly a sociopath, without regard for others. Even from her prison cell she continues to damage Astrid whilst claiming to care for her, and, to manipulate the world at large into seeing her as the victim. She is a truly intriguing character.
The blurb on the back calls the book hypnotic and I have to lend my voice in agreement to that. It has a really lyrical quality and it engaged me from the outset. It is often grim, and frequently depressing but not in a way that makes you despair of it. You are interested enough in the character outcomes to continue. There is some excellent dialogue too. I also liked that the conclusion was open ended, will Astrid finally physically and psychologically break free from Ingrid, or will she again succumb to the machinations of the puppet master? 7/10