By David Holloway
Reading Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleander (White, Brown, 1999) is an emotionally shredding experience. For each time I rejoiced in the resilience of the human spirit, I wept in despair at its ugliness. Like the beautiful but toxic Oleander plant that forms the novel’s central allegory, in this world everything is subjective and conditional, nothing is certain, and the reader’s relationship with this story is never quite in balance.
The episodic structure and the degraded milieu of the story borrow from the picaresque tradition. Astrid Magnussen, the story’s narrator, is twelve years old when her narcissistic mother (and sole parent) Ingrid – a poet – is imprisoned. With no control of her own passage, Astrid tumbles through a series of Californian foster homes that function as a kaleidoscopic cross section of late Twentieth Century western dysfunction. Astrid is shot by a jealous born-again Christian foster mother; enslaved and evicted by white trash suburbanites; charmed and abandoned by a high-end prostitute; starved by a wealthy Argentine exile then neglected and put to work by a Russian flea-market hustler. And her one foster mother hope – nurturing, neurotic, depressive Claire, who is ultimately a mirage of the mother Ingrid will never have – purges herself instead of the child. All of which seems to make it worse, to add insult to the injury.
White Oleander has two hemispheres that sit – mostly – in equilibrium. The malignant hemisphere freights Astrid’s grueling journey, her mother’s narcissism, and the despair of the foster home environment. The benign hemisphere envelops Astrid’s stoicism and her ability to survive, to learn and to grow through the trauma. The two pieces are skillfully wrapped in a physical and societal toxicity, in a story told with a calm, observational tone that is buffeted, but never ruined, by the shocking things Astrid endures.
Watching the passage of this child, this “instead-baby,” as she toils through the arduous challenges of foster care, ever in the distant shadow of her ferocious and self-absorbed mother, we feel angry, sorrowful, sympathetic and later exhausted. The story pitches and tosses, rarely losing its tension or its drama. Amongst other things, Ms Fitch’s skill in depicting a complex mother-daughter relationship, her allegorical interplay with nature, her fabulous turn of phrase, her prowess in building a compelling character and throwing rock after rock at her – but never quite killing her – are enduring memories of this work.
The beauty of this horror lies in the detail, and Ms Fitch expertly conjures the despair in each tiny element. The child is forced to wear Council of Jewish Women thrift stores clothes, is baptized into the Truth Assembly of Christ in a pool toxic with chlorine. Uncle Ray puts his cigarette butts into his empty beer can and keeps a small pipe of dope next to him at all times. Sometimes the scenes feel like something from Jesus’ Son or Knockemstiff. All the constants around Astrid are noxious: emotional fissures; dysfunctional families; her mother, in all her spectacular narcissism. And even the physical backdrop – the Santa Ana winds; the fires; the delightful but deadly oleander plant – operates as both character and metaphor:
The time of year you couldn’t even go to the beach because of the toxic red tide, the time when the city dropped to its knees like ancient Sodom, praying for redemption.
And it’s a man’s world, this obscene place. We see it in Ingrid’s lovers, and Astrid observes it repeatedly, with climbing exasperation, as she laments “… women with men, like Marvel and Starr, trying to please,” and observes that “women always put men first. That’s how everything got so screwed up.”
At times, it is overpowering and somewhat overwrought. In particular, the mother, Ingrid, is too much – too formidable, too casually grandiose, too strong an adversary to pit against a child. Before her incarceration, Ingrid ignores her hungry child to “write a poem using the rhythms of the gamelan, about shadow puppets and the gods of chance.” Through a procession of lovers, she demonstrates her own emotional disfigurement and gleefully teaches her daughter the beauty of hatred, the emptiness of love. Her letters from prison (initially, at least) manipulate and control the child, until Astrid sees herself “exactly where she wanted me, safely unhappy with Marvel Turlock, a prisoner in turquoise, brewing into an artist, someone she might want to know someday.”
And thus Ingrid suppresses the narrative in places and sometimes renders as its most central character, even from prison. But for the most part there is enough balance for it to hold, and this mother-daughter relationship functions as an engine for Astrid’s own personal growth, as she moves – with the uncertainty of a child initially – through loving her mother, yearning for her, then to understanding and despising her malignance:
She smiled, slow and treacherous. “Help you, darling? I’d rather see you in the worst kind of foster hell than with a woman like that.”
Throughout it all, Astrid manages to remain believable as a child, curious and intelligent as an adolescent and an effective narrator. She grows enough to understand her own issues, the curses she has engendered, the fact that she too, has the “sin virus.” And she shows us a compelling mind that incessantly seeks answers, trying to make sense of the world around her:
What was the underlying structure of this, that’s what I needed to know: Joey Bishop singing “Jingle Bell Rock,” poets sleeping in cots bolted to walls, and beautiful women lying under men who ate three dinners in a row. Where children hugged broken-necked giraffes and cried, or else drove around in plastic Barbie cars, and men with missing fingers longed for fourteen-year-old lovers, while women with porn-star figures cried out for the Holy Spirit.
In places there is a slight clumsiness as Astrid moves through the foster homes. The discontinuity, the wrenching motion of it all is, at times, too sharp. Similarly, the ending – Astrid’s sudden appearance in Germany – feels contrived. Notwithstanding her understandable wish to put distance between herself and her years of teenage imprisonment, the move is too unheralded. And the closing sentiment, in which Astrid yearns for California, is not quite built up enough to be believable, in spite of the power of Ms Fitch’s aching descriptions of Astrid’s homeland.
But anything lesser in this novel is swept along in the aesthetic skill of the story and the lovely symmetries of its tone. Sensuous feminine interpretations: “I could feel the waves of her passion like perfume across the teacups”; metaphorical representations of nature: “… like silicated water in the Petrified Forest, turning my wood to patterned agate”; and embittered tirades: “Forests of boys, their ragged shrubs full of eyes following you, grabbing your breasts, waving their money, eyes already knocking you down, taking what they felt was theirs” meld with skill and elegance throughout White Oleander, leaving the reader with a sense of ambient toxicity mingled, like within the eponymous flower, in an enveloping beauty.
David Holloway is a current student in the MFA program run by the University of California, Riverside, majoring in long form fiction and screenwriting. An Australian national and an international citizen, David lives and (as an obsessive hobby) writes in Singapore.