Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

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Sorry I haven’t posted in a while – it was hectic at work last month of the year! This retelling of “Snow White” was my first read of #ReadWomen of December 2015.

It’s 1953 and Boy Novak has finally managed to escape New York and her abusive ratcatcher father. By mere chance, she ends up in a tiny town called Flax Hill in New England and tries to make ends meet by taking whatever job is on offer until she is finally offered a position at a local bookstore. She finds some friends, and she meets a rich widower who is somewhat older than she is and has a daughter, Snow Whitman. She marries him and finds herself in a role she’s never pictured herself to play – a stepmother. Soon, Boy and Arturo have a daughter of their own, Bird Whitman, who exposes the secret of the Whitman family. The secret that they are light-skinned African-Americans passing for white people is dangerous to say the least in the 1950s in the States. And it is certainly not something Boy’s obsessive, addictive personality is prepared to deal with well. How far can a girl go when she’s forced into the role of a wicked stepmother?

 

I dove into “Boy, Snow, Bird” expecting a “Snow White” retelling with a twist that went into social issues such as racism and xenophobia in 20th century America. I did get the latter (and then some), but I don’t see this as a retelling. Actually – and this isn’t a criticism – I see this as an attempt to make it a retelling of “Snow White” that ultimately turned out to be an introspective story of obsession, symbolism and familial relations impacted by social issues that are undoubtedly relevant today. That’s not to say, however, that “Boy, Snow, Bird” lacks in typical elements of a fairytale (hence the “attempt” part) – it features a dead birthmother, half-sisters, sexual awakenings, good vs. evil conflicts, and last, but not least, mirrors. Boy, Snow, and Bird have a somewhat disturbing obsession with mirrors. Oyeyemi wrote the book to make the mirrors bring the element of magical realism into the novel, and what really makes the whole thing stand out is how our three protagonists view them and their significance in their interwined lives. “Boy, Snow, Bird” features symbolism that isn’t limited to mirrors on almost every single page, and most of it relates to Boy’s inner struggle with the “wicked” inside her.

“Boy, Snow, Bird” also makes a very solid attempt to explore the subject of evil being born vs. evil being made. Boy Novak is a very unreliable narrator, and so is Bird, albeit less so. The combination of this and the Jekyll-Hydesque symbolism, as well as mirrors, is a strong argument if favour of the dual nature of every person that Boy seems to reject throughout the book and Bird seems to struggle with, given her heritage. The fact that Boy sends Snow away when Bird is born because she feels that she can be nothing but bad can be interpreted both as a wicked stepmother act (if we go along with her notion that she was born evil), and an act of kindness (if we don’t). Bird’s point of view is too subjective for us to see how Boy actually feels about her, and Boy herself is too unreliable of a narrator to answer that question. Her treatment of Snow following Bird’s birth is when her narration is the hardest to understand and connect with. By the end of the novel (the third part, as well as the first one, are told by Boy, whereas the second one is from Bird’s point of view), the narratives are at their most confusing and at times, even jumbled, resulting in a somewhat ambiguous ending.

Everything I’ve said above would have worked really well in “Boy, Snow, Bird” if that was all there was to it. I have mixed feelings about the book, because there were things in it that prevented me from fully enjoying it. It was dense, it was packed with important subjects, and Oyeyemi dressed them in beautiful writing, but it doesn’t mean that all of them were handled properly. While I believe that the issues of race and identity were explored really well, the issues of gender were rushed through and Oyeyemi tried to pack them in a book that was already dense with other subjects. A 300-page book is not long enough to explore too many issues at once, in my opinion, and I don’t think the author realised that, which resulted in a very densely packed novel, leaving little space for answers I was hoping to get.

My advice – do pick up “Boy, Snow, Bird”, but don’t rush through it, and definitely don’t treat it as a “Snow White” retelling. My rating is 7/10.

 

Favourite quotes

“Sometimes you write down barefaced lies, or words you don’t really mean, just to see how they look, and it’s comforting to think that after six hours, the words will just disappear. No need to show them the door, they’ll just be seeing themselves out”.

“Evil studies the ordinary and iminates it. Then you can say it was just a little bad temper, we all know what that is. But some people… with some people the spite goes so deep, it is a thing beyond personality…”

“First you try to find a reason, try to understand what you’ve done wrong so you can be sure not to do that anymore. After than you look for signs of a Jekyll and Hyde situation, the good and the bad in a person sifted into separate compartments by some weird accident. Then, gradually, you realize that there isn’t a reason, and it isn’t two people you’re dealing with, just one. The same one every time”.

 

Recommendations

You might like “Boy, Snow, Bird” if you liked:

“The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

“The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender” by Leslye Walton

“Redemption in Indigo” by Karen Lord

Have you read “Boy, Snow, Bird”? What are your favourite retellings of “Snow White”? Do let me know! 🙂

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