Boy, Snow, Bird
By Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead Books, 2014
308 pages, $27.95
It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that is as challenging to review as Boy, Snow, Bird. A summary of the premise would utterly fail to do it justice. I read several short reviews and summaries before I started the book; they only touched on what this story is about and none captured the essence of Oyeyemi’s brilliant, occasionally astounding novel. I’m sure my short review will suffer the same failures. So, if you want to stop reading now, at least know this much: This is a special book by a uniquely gifted author, and you should read it.
Here’s the premise: It’s 1953 and Boy Novak, a 20-year-old girl from the Lower East Side of Manhattan flees her abusive father, the Rat Catcher, ending up in the small Massachusetts town of Flax Hill, where she hopes to make a new start on a life with some beauty instead of the sordid poverty and suffering of the life she ran from. Staying in a boarding house for similarly situated young women, she befriends fellow guests Veronica Webster (always called Webster) and Mia Cabrini. She obtains a job working at the bookstore owned by the eccentric but kind-hearted Mrs. Fletcher.
I loved Oyeyemi’s descriptions and her two-character first-person narrative, although Boy remains a questionable and possibly unreliable narrator in her sections. Early on, Boy describes her first days in town. “As for Flax Hill itself, I was on shaky terms with it for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner. I kept passing park benches and telephone booths and entrances to alleyways that I was absolutely certain hadn’t been there the evening before.”
Before long, she encounters widower Arturo Whitman, who decides to woo the young, icily beautiful, and mysterious Boy. Whitman has an eight-year-old daughter, Snow, who is adored by everyone for her beauty, charm, and utter goodness. She is the perfect child. Boy walks in the shadow of Arturo’s dead wife, Julia, but appears to make her peace with Julia’s ongoing presence in the lives of Arturo and Snow. It is not giving away anything significant to reveal that Boy agrees to marry Arturo and become Snow’s stepmother. For it is here that the plot reaches critical mass and the action starts to rise. Their relationship starts off on a promising note but soon becomes complicated by jealousy and an almost sibling rivalry. Snow seems mostly oblivious to her effect on people and the impact she has on Boy and her marriage to Arturo. She is young, of course. But as time goes on, Snow becomes more self-aware and her relationships increasingly curious. It is as if her friends and family members worship her rather than love her.
Boy explains, “If Snow was ever worried, if any anxieties ever disturbed her for longer than a day, she rarely showed it. She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it. She’d pat your arm and say, “Everything is okay. Everything is normal,” and you took her word for it. Sometimes I think it was a trick of hers, deciding aloud what was going on so that everyone who loved her fell over themselves to make it so. Sometimes I think we needed her to be like that and she obliged.”
Later, Bird offers a description of how the people of Flax Hill treat her older half-sister. “Everybody agreed that Snow was valuable, but she was far too valuable to have around for keeps. Nice to look at for an afternoon, but we’ll all breathe easier once she’s safely back at the museum. I was beginning to hate people because of the way they talked about my sister, because of the way they didn’t really want her.”
Clearly, Snow is not your typical girl. But why? Is she inherently different and special? Or is it that she is just remarkably beautiful and everyone has treated her differently for so long that she has become different?
At one point, Bird observes Snow reading note cards left for her by visitors to the family home. “She was used to being treated like this. It was nothing to her. I had a moment of hating her, or at least understanding why Mom did. Thankfully it came and went really quickly, like a dizzy spell, or a three-second blizzard. Does she know that she does this to people? Dumb question. This is something we do to her.”
Much has been made of the obvious parallels between Oyeyemi’s story and that of Snow White. Boy is the “wicked stepmother.” But that simplifies a complex and multi-level character and plot. Certainly, the inspiration is there, but Boy, Snow, Bird is not simply a modern retelling of Snow White. There is a lot of mirror imagery and “magic” of sorts involved here, and several characters are obsessed with what constitutes beauty. The plot turns on the birth of Boy and Arturo’s daughter, whom they name Bird. To everyone’s surprise, she is dark-skinned. The Whitman family secret is revealed: they are light-skinned African-Americans who have been “passing” for white for a few generations, a situation that has been zealously protected by Arturo’s mother and family matriarch Olivia, ostensibly for the benefit of her descendants. Remember, the story begins in 1953. What will Arturo and Boy do with Bird? Should they send her away, perhaps to live with Arturo’s older sister, Clara, who was banished to Boston long ago for some unrevealed behavior?
Half-sisters Snow and Bird are indeed separated, but not in the way one might expect. They yearn for each other and manage to make contact and develop something of a sisterly relationship as the years pass. The family dynamics, particularly between Boy and Olivia, increase in difficulty and tension. Arturo goes about his business as a custom jewelry maker. Issues of race, culture, beauty, and ethics permeate the second half of the novel. To describe them is to shortchange their subtlety and the accomplishment of Oyeyemi’s thinking and writing. Just when you think you have sorted out the melodrama and symbolism, there is a dramatic (yet plausible) plot development that will make readers stop short, with their mouths hanging open.
One of the joys of Boy, Snow, Bird is Oyeyemi’s sparkling writing. It is full of wit, intelligence, unusual turns of phrase, and a unique sensibility, perhaps the result of her being born in Nigeria and raised and educated in the UK. She is only 29 and has already published five well-received novels. It’s no wonder that Granta chose her as one of Britain’s best young novelists in 2013.
Boy befriends some students who spend a lot of time in the bookstore. One day she walks two of the girls home. “As usual, Phoebe’s siblings were waiting for us outside the elementary school, three rowdy girls of indeterminate age and the shortest of short-term memories. Every school day they asked if they could play with my hair, and I let them. Every school day they squealed: “It’s just like sunshine!” and I wished they’d find a new sensation.”
In a flashback to earlier in her teens, when a young man named Charlie took a fancy to her, Boy describes Charlie’s meeting with her father, the rat catcher.
“I’ve seen the way you look at my daughter. You think she’s pretty, don’t you?”
Charlie said: “More than just pretty, sir. I think she’s beautiful.”
They both turned to me and went on a looking spree. I left them to it and wished I could sail over their heads and into the acid blue sky. They didn’t look for long, it was more a practiced series of glances; they knew what they were looking for and seemed to find it. It was a wonder there was anything left by the time they were through looking.”
In part two of the story, Bird assumes the narration, and within 10 pages reveals the following:
“Sometimes mirrors can’t find me. I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but often enough. Sometimes when other people are there, but nobody ever notices that my reflection’s a no-show. Or maybe they decide not to notice because it’s too weird.”
On the next page, she describes an encounter with her mirror, in which she is not present.
“[S]o I broke the mirror, and kept right on hitting it long after it broke, a cartoon mouse squeak coming out of my mouth, loud, loud. And the oval glass, that dear old glass that used to stand on my dresser, it tried to give me what I wanted, tried to give me my face, but it kept showing me bits of faces that weren’t mine. There were slivers of Mom’s face, and Dad’s, and Aunt Mia’s, and Grammy Olivia’s, and others, some shreds no wider than my index finger. I don’t know who they were, there was even a man or two, faces chasing other like photographic slides when someone’s trying to show you their vacation in a hurry — in the end I had to knock the frame flat and run for Mom [Boy], who vanished all the broken glass with no questions asked.”
Late in the novel, Snow, now in her early 20’s, writes a letter to 13-year-old Bird, explaining about her recent job search. At one point, she visits an employment agency.
“There was an additional cover sheet that asked you to declare your race. The woman at the front desk said that it was just for the agency records, that it wasn’t information they passed on to employers, but the girl next to me said to her: ‘You people need to think about what you’re doing to us. You’re bad people…you’re making us paranoid. You’re driving us crazy. Every time I don’t make it through to interviews, I’ll be wondering whether it’s because there are better candidates or because of color. Color, color, color; what you’re doing is illegal and you know it. I should find myself a lawyer who’s ready to make an example of you.’
The woman at the front desk had heard it all before and she recited something about it being impossible to obtain any proof that employers were shown the information agency clients provided on the additional cover sheet….I left mine blank; I knew that I was within my legal rights not to say. Ms. Front Desk pushed my forms back across the table to me and said I had to fulfill all of the requirements. I told her, ‘None of these options say what I am,” and she rolled her eyes. ‘Every day. Every day a philosopher walks in off the street and makes my job that little bit harder to do.’ Then she said, ‘Why won’t you say? Hmmm?'”
Another example of Oyeyemi’s laser-like observations is made by Boy early one morning near the story’s powerful conclusion. “The first coffee of the morning is never, ever, ready quickly enough. You die before it’s ready and then your ghost pours the resurrection potion out of the moka pot.”
Boy, Snow, Bird is so complex, such a fractured fairy tale, that it is like the shattered mirror described by Bird. I have been pondering its points in the two days since I finished it, and I know it will occupy a corner of my mind for some time to come, prodding me to think about it again, more deeply. I suspect this may be the first book on which I will write a second review once I sort out my thoughts about it. That is the sign of a special novel and possibly a great one.