It was a secret wanting, like a song I couldn’t stop humming, or loving someone I could never have. Now matter where I went, my compass pointed west. I would always know what time it was in California. – White Oleander, Janet Fitch

When I was growing up, wherever we were, there was one certain sight. The bookcases were always stuffed with books. I sat down on the sofa only to pull a library book out from under me. There were boxes of books in the garage. I kept books on my bedside table and under my bed. Books with bookmarks, tea stains and creased spines littered the coffee tables. There were untouchable books, not meant to be read but collector items to be sold. Hardbacks and paperbacks were put on the stairs to be put back wherever they came from. You get the picture.

I was 17 when I decided to move to the UK for the first time. I would finish my last two years of education at a boarding school just outside of London. That summer before I left, I backtracked in the hallway, a cover calling to me. I didn’t understand the title but I saw the flower. Its blurb explained what it was about:

A passionate, hypnotic and dangerous novel about a daughter and her mother. Astrid has been raised by her mother Ingrid,  a beautiful , headstrong poet. Astrid’s world revolves around Ingrid; she forgives her everything. Until Ingrid murders a former lover and is imprisoned for life…

I don’t think I stopped reading it for the 3 days it took me to finish it. I was shaken by the end. Why? I didn’t know at the time. Over the years, when I returned to the residences occupied by my parents, I would find it again and again. It would always survive any donation to charity and be freed from a packing box. And I’d reread it. I eventually bought my own copy. It is still one of my favourite novels.It is one of the best representations of the narcissist I have ever read. And no, not the narcissism of taking selfies and looking in mirrors but the personality disorder;

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

The stage is set for Astrid. You will read all she has to go through in foster homes and having to deal with a mother who is an emotional vampire, taking and taking even from behind bars.

It’s the last part of the novel that I warmed to the most. It is then that Astrid understands two things. One, she can never convince people who her mother really is. They won’t believe her. Well meaning Women’s Studies students visit Astrid as she is nearing adulthood. They have visited her incarcerated mother.

“You don’t think she killed him, do you,” I said.

Hannah shook her head, quickly. “It’s all been a terrible mistake. A nightmare. She talks about it in the interview.”

I was sure she had. She was always at her best with an audience. “Something you should know,” I told her. “She did kill him.”

…and I felt suddenly cruel, like I’d told small children there was no tooth fairy. 

Two, she has to let her mother go. She must put up a strong fence. Not because she doesn’t love her, her mother was always the only thing she could attach to. And not because Astrid herself is not worth loving. She admits that her mother loves her and can show remorse. But love has to be expressed and shown constantly, not every now and then. And lived without conditions. Astrid’s mother can’t do that. Tragically, narcissism always wins. There is no cure. The batterer never stops battering.

“I was always waiting for you, Mother. It’s the constant in my life. Waiting for you.”

I always cry whenever I read this part as I felt too when I was growing up that I was waiting for something. Waiting for the next migration, waiting for the last one. I still am. It’s a work in progress. Astrid moves to Berlin with her boyfriend, also a foster child. Astrid no longer stays exactly where and how her mother wants her. It is in that city that she starts to become who she is. In the film it is New York.

I liked Berlin. The city and I understood each other. I liked that they had left the bombed-out hulk of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church as a monument to loss. Nobody had forgotten anything here. In Berlin, you had to wrestle with the past, you had to build on the ruins, inside them. 

During #TCKChat entitled TCK Reads, one of the questions was what book you would recommend to a young TCK. It was Astrid I immediately thought of. She is not a TCK but she is high mobility. And every foster home like a new country to a TCK, one she does not know and has to map out. It has mature content for sure and so it is for TCKs who are in their late teens or early twenties. Some points to consider if using White Oleander as a resource with TCKs:

  • In Berlin, Astrid buys several suitcases and each one represents her foster homes. I was creating my personal museum. Imagine you have some suitcases and each one is a country where you grew up. What would you put inside them? When they are finished, that is your third culture. What does it look like?
  • This is dialogue between Astrid and her boyfriend Paul whilst they are in Berlin.“Do you ever want to go home?” I asked Paul. He brushed an ash from my face.”It’s the century of the displaced person,” he said. “You can never go home.” What does he mean? Look up the word displaced.Can you make a list of displaced persons? What do you have in common with them? How are you different? Do you think a person who has never been displaced can become so by meeting someone who has been?
  • The last lines of the book make reference to a time zone. I’m often attracted to time zones as a TCK. What time is it in the places you grew up?
  • A white oleander is a beautiful but poisonous plant. Is there such a plant in your passport country or a country you were raised in? Or is there an nondescript but beneficial one? Can you create a title?
  • Astrid is ultimately disappointed and let down in each foster home but she takes away a lesson as well. She sheds a skin and rises like a phoenix from the ashes. Can you think of a similar time in your childhood? When you were exploring or wrestling with an identity?

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. It was definitely a catalyst for my own first novel which I’m drafting. I would love to publish a TCK version of White Oleander. I recommend too The Foundling Museum’s list of characters in fiction who are foundlings, fostered, adopted or orphaned.