White Oleander – Janet Fitch
What they say:
Astrid Magnussen, the teenage narrator of Janet Fitch’s engrossing first novel, White Oleander, has a mother who is as sharp as a new knife. An uncompromising poet, Ingrid despises weakness and self- pity, telling her daughter that they are descendants of Vikings, savages who fought fiercely to survive. And when one of Ingrid’s boyfriends abandons her, she illustrates her point, killing the man with the poison of oleander flowers. This leads to a life-sentence in prison, leaving Astrid to teach herself the art of survival in a string of Los Angeles foster homes.
What I say:
I read this book when I was 18 and studying English Literature and Psychology. It was actually free in a magazine but I was so impressed that I used it as part of my final English coursework.
Some reviewers have called the writing heavy handed and I do see what they mean. Given that the narrator is an adolescent girl, daughter of a flamboyant poet, the writing style works for the character.
This book is not an accurate depiction of life in care, nor do I believe it is meant to be. The book is an exploration of the complex and difficult relationship between Mothers and daughters.
When Ingrid kills her former lover, she is imprisoned for life and her daughter Astrid, is sent to a string of foster homes. Each home, each ‘Mother’ is an extreme version of one aspect of her own Mother’s personality. In the way that Astrid analyses and copes with each of the situations, she learns a little more about herself, about the way her Mother’s mind works and the way she has been effected by her behaviour.
The prose is often beautiful and poetic. Sometimes there are a few too many metaphors and the writing feels forced, but largely the biggest issue with the book is the pace. So much happens to Astrid that not only does her story become hard to believe, but as a character she becomes hard to empathise with.
White Oleander is a clever book that should be read for it’s analysis and insights into this compelling relationship, rather than it’s slightly far-fetched story line.