Boy, Snow, Bird
Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel is a strange story, brutally real and lyrically magical, that will linger with readers long after the book is closed upon finishing. BOY, SNOW, BIRD is about three women, and the friends and family who shape them, navigating a world where identity is not to be taken for granted and relationships can be perilous.
The central character is Boy Novak, who suffers terrible abuse at the hands of her father, a cruel rat-catcher in New York City. Born in 1933, Boy grows up never knowing her mother in an America tense with racial, social, sexual and political changes. She is a striking young woman who is intelligent but tormented by her father. Eventually she runs away from home, leaving behind the rat-catcher and Charlie, the boy she loves. Boy finds herself in Flax Hill, a small town that prides itself on its artisan creations. She makes a friend in Veronica Webster, who introduces her to an older man, a professor turned jewelry maker named Arturo Whitman. Boy and Arturo begin an uneasy romance that finally leads to marriage. Though Boy stays in contact with Charlie and he continues to want to build a life with her, she chooses the kind of security that Arturo offers and to become stepmother to his ethereal young daughter, Snow.
"It is a soulful, dramatic, peculiar and perplexing novel, and Oyeyemi is proving herself to be not only a writer true to her own unique style but also a master storyteller."
But Boy’s initial attraction to Snow’s beauty fades quickly. She begins to understand Snow as an evil creature --- the same accusation her father leveled against her. When Arturo and Boy have a daughter of their own, Bird, born with the dark skin and features that reveal the Whitman family secret, Boy becomes increasingly scared and angered by Snow’s fairness and sends her away. Far from home, Snow continues to grow into the fairy tale figure that Boy fears she is, but she also develops into a real woman who was cast out by her stepmother and, like Boy, longed for a mother. Before the tale ends, Bird and Snow, sisters who never knew each other, begin a correspondence, and Boy’s friend Mia uncovers the fundamental and disturbing truth about Boy’s family.
The realism in BOY, SNOW, BIRD is ever balanced by Oyeyemi’s unique injections of magic. It is not just her use of expressive prose and archetypal characters that makes the story fantastical. There are actual moments when the real and the imaginary, the mundane and the enchanted, blur. Boy sees a dark menace on wedding cake toppers and in the house from which Snow first emerges; Bird talks to spiders, and both Snow and Bird lose their reflections in mirrors. Just as powerful as the mysterious and marvelous elements is the novel’s examination of race. Boy, Snow and Bird (along with several supporting characters) must wrestle with race and identity; their responses are often problematic and always complex.
Snow Whitman may be a stand-in for Snow White and Boy Novak for the wicked stepmother, but BOY, SNOW, BIRD both confronts and transcends the fairy tale Oyeyemi begins with. In her hands, the stepmother is richly complicated, the innocent beauty is hindered by her physical form, and the setting is not a far-off land but America in a moment of transition. It is a soulful, dramatic, peculiar and perplexing novel, and Oyeyemi is proving herself to be not only a writer true to her own unique style but also a master storyteller.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 21, 2014