[Virago Press, 1999. First published by Little, Brown 1999]
Very rarely does a book come as highly recommended as ‘White Oleander.’ After it was suggested to me by a number of my online reading friends, I decided to take it out from the library – a tattered, well-read edition with all of the markings of the following it has accrued over the years.
Now that I am done, the last page has been read, leaving me in a pensive daze, I remain overwhelmed by the brilliance of this book.
Starting as a story about a mother and her young daughter, I was immediately taken in by the unconventional relationship Astrid and Ingrid shared. Astrid struck me with her maturity and independence as a young girl. She worships her mother, feels guilt for being an imposition to this woman who epitomises freedom and beauty. Although occasionally wishing for the “normal” rituals of family life, she adores her mother for who she is and the uniqueness of their lives – a symbiosis in art that gives Astrid intelligence and insight into the world.
When her mother kills her boyfriend and goes to prison, Astrid is thrust into a world of foster families – one that can, at times, hardly offer sanctuary from the cruelties of the world.
What ensues is one of the most powerful coming of age stories I have ever read. It explores the power and confusion of womanhood in the life of a girl growing up too fast. It is also a story about mothers and daughters that covers absence, presence, and discovery – the nuances and complexities that exist in daughters and the mothers that bring them into the world. With her mother in prison, this is a novel that looks at mothers and daughters in negative, as well as positive space and magnifies the different facets of girlhood and womanhood in a very special way; showing how the people closest to us are poured into the chasms of our souls to influence us as heroes or antagonists.
Tragic and totally compelling, ‘White Oleander’ makes the reader experience tension, whimsy, and hope. It is an emotional experience to follow this endearing character through all of her trials, with a motley bunch of characters, some of whom are easily-lovable, others inspire loathing, all memorable.
In short, pick up the raggedy copy of this book from your local library and join its masses of fans.