Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

18079683Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi

320 pages

Being published by Riverhead Books on March 6, 2014

Source: From a blogger friend

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. . . ”

It’s the winter of 1953 and Boy Novak has finally ran away from her abusive father, winding up in a small town far from home. Later on, she marries Arturo Whitman, a widower, and becomes stepmother to his young daughter, Snow. But it’s the birth of Arturo and Boy’s own daughter, Bird, which changes Boy’s happy ending. Their daughter is born with brown skin and exposes Arturo and his immediate family as African Americans passing as white. Bird’s birth changes Boy’s view of Snow, as the girl turning from an innocent child to a more sinister figure. Is Snow really who everyone thinks she is? Are any of us the images we reflect to others? With Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi gives new life to the tale of Snow White; expanding and exploring it through the webs of race, beauty, vanity, and above all, love.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: Helen Oyeyemi comes up with some kick-ass names for her characters.

As someone who has never read anything by the author before, I went into this book with no expectations. I didn’t know this story had elements of the Snow White fable. A note about that: There are fairy tale retellings and modern-day versions of fairy tales, but I like to think of Oyeyemi’s story as a fairy tale expansion because she takes the Snow White story and turns it into a complex, sometimes heartbreaking, enlightening story.

“It was standard-issue stuff. I wanted a family. But it was just as Arturo said-I didn’t know how to start anything from scratch, and I didn’t want to know. Getting pushed around as a kid had made me realistic about my capabilities. I know some people learn how to take more knocks and keep going. Not me. I’m the other kind. . .See, I’m looking for a role with lines I can say convincingly, something practical. ”

Boy arrives at the small town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts with just the money stolen from her father and no idea on what her next move should be. It’s by luck that she finds her way, making friends and through them, meeting her future husband. While things are okay, Boy isn’t always able to shake the feeling of being an imposter. She’s an outsider with no skills who lives in a town surrounded by people who “make beautiful things.” She always comes from such a dysfunctional life, one that she keeps a secret for the most part.

Pretty much everyone in this story is an imposter of some sort: black passing for white, compassionate masquerading as unkind. Everyone is wearing a mask of some sort but the reflection in the mirror doesn’t lie. (Yes, there’s a mirror in this story.) And that’s one of the themes, the strands from the fable that Oyeyemi tugs on. There’s the image that we hope others see of us, the image they really see, and the image that we see of ourselves.

“Bird adored Snow; everybody adored Snow and her daintiness. Snow’s beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl—we don’t see a colored girl standing there. The joke’s on us. . . From this I can only . . .begin to measure the difference between being seen as colored and being seen as Snow. What can I do for my daughter? One day soon a wall will come up between us, and I won’t be able to follow her behind it.”

That insight leads Boy to make a decision that changes her new family and probably not for the best either. It’s a decision that I didn’t see coming but later understood the logic of it.

From what I’ve read about Oyeyemi, she’s known for writing fantasy and this book is no exception. I want to say it’s magic realism but this magic is hidden. Readers will question if Bird and Snow don’t have reflections in the mirror while Boy’s reflection can make faces back in a Peter Pan-ish kind of way.

I can go on and on about this book. There’s so much that I want to discuss and could. Boy, Snow, Bird is a daring and wonderful story.  My rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Go buy it.

Advertisements