Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Published: 2014, Riverhead Books
Genre: Historical Fiction, Retelling
We’re friendly toward strangers because of a general belief (I don’t know where it comes from) that we’re born strangers and that the memory of how that feels never really leaves us.
Boy, Snow, Bird is being touted as a historical fiction retelling of “Snow White” set in 1950s America. The fact that it is a retelling is the primary reason I became interested in reading this story. The retelling, however, is more of an afterthought than anything else. Instead, Oyeyemi’s novel focuses on the trials and tribulations that three women face: Boy, her stepdaughter Snow, and her daughter Bird.
Boy Novak’s beauty is widely acknowledged, and she has grown up frequently admiring her reflection in mirrors. But Boy’s life is far from perfect. She has grown up without her mother, and her father makes a living catching rats. He also likes to abuse her in her spare time. So when Boy finds herself with an opportunity to leave her father for good, she takes it and travels up to the small New England town of Flax Hill.
In a small town where everyone seems to know everything about each other, Boy is treated with suspicion and envy. Until, that is, she befriends some of the locals and begins working at a bookstore. Still, it isn’t until Boy begins a serious relationship with Arturo Whitman, local scholar-turned-jeweler, that she finally begins to feel she may have a place in Flax Hill after all.
Besides the somewhat misleading comparison to “Snow White” (the parallels are present for the discerning reader, but are not integral to the story and don’t flesh it out very much), I was surprised to find that this isn’t entirely Boy’s story. Boy narrates the first part, and then her daughter Bird has a section of narration. The final part is narrated once again by Boy. While I did enjoy the generational, family saga feel to this all, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Also, it was more than a little disappointing that Snow does not have a chance to narrate her section.
Much of the story is focused on Boy, on her insecurities and seeming inadequacies. Physically, she’s a model of blonde-haired, fair-skinned, blue-eyed perfection. She may love looking at her reflection in the mirror, but her actions belie any outward confidence. She’s the girl who grew up without a mother. She’s the girl who moves to tiny Flax Hill for no reason and with no plans in place. Even when all seems to be going well with Arturo, Boy feels threatened by his lovely, sweet daughter Snow. So much so that she does transform into a “wicked stepmother” in many ways.
Boy is a fascinating character. She starts off being sympathetic, but any reader sympathy gets called into question as Boy begins to make many questionable decisions, especially with regard to her relationship with Arturo. And yet, Oyeyemi never allows Boy to become completely unlikable; rather, her shades of grey become more apparent as the novel continues.
The two daughters, Snow and Bird, are both painted in a more positive light than Boy. Snow, as I mentioned earlier, never becomes a narrator. In Boy’s mind she’s a threat, in Bird’s mind, a potential friend and ally. But one thing remains constant throughout: Snow is an enigmatic character. Bird is perhaps the most sympathetic character; as she approaches her teenage years, Bird is becoming more aware of her differences, of her seemingly-white parents, of the fact that she has a sister she never sees. And she’s reached a point where she’s started to question those previously-held assumptions in her life. It is in Bird’s narration where the story feels most compelling.
One aspect of “Snow White” that does translate well in Oyeyemi’s novel is the power that mirrors have. When she was younger, Boy used to enjoy looking into mirrors to affirm her beauty (and, in many ways, what she believed to be her value). Bird, the daughter of Boy and Arturo, is darker-skinned and clearly has African ancestry. And, more often than not, mirrors don’t even show her reflection, even when she stands directly in front of them. Rather than her reflection simply verifying Bird’s mixed ancestry, her lack of reflection also alludes to the racial tensions very much present, as well as a general discomfort in non-white and mixed races. It’s the sort of thoughtful criticism that can be broken down and discussed at length. And Oyeyemi’s book is full of such introspection.
As a novel about racial relations, gender roles, and complicated family relationships, Boy, Snow, Bird delivers a quality story. It may not be everything the promotional material promises, but it’s still a fairly solid story overall. The ending, however, is disappointing. Oyeyemi tries to add one too many issues to the last 50 or so pages of the story, which led the conclusion to feel forced and utterly unbelievable. I wonder if this was the original ending that Oyeyemi had planned, or something that she developed as the story continued. Either way, it does not mesh well with the rest of the story.
Still, it’s easy to see why Oyeyemi has already received such critical acclaim for her works. Her writing style is complex (but not overly so), thoughtful, and contains beautiful prose. It’s worth a read for those who enjoy thoughtful stories and works of historical fiction. As for me, I think I’ll try Mr. Fox next, as I feel like I haven’t truly discovered the full extent of the greatness that Oyeyemi is capable of writing.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Disclaimer: I received this review copy from Goodreads First Reads and the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion.