Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Website)
Genre: literary fiction/ magical realism
Setting: Flax Hill, CT (fictional)
I read it as a: paperback
Source: my own collection
Length: 308 pp
Published by: Riverhead Books (27 Aug 2013)
Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
**Major spoilers below**
In mid-century Massachusetts, Boy Novak marries Arturo Whitman, a widower with a young daughter, Snow. Eventually, Boy has a daughter of her own, which is when it becomes clear that Arturo and Snow are light-skinned Blacks and they are ‘passing’ as white.
Boy, Snow, Bird is touted as a Snow White retelling, but if that is true, I fucking missed the point. Yes, there was a bit of an obsession with mirrors throughout and a sense of competitiveness about ‘who is the fairest’ between Boy and Snow. Beyond that, I guess I missed the similarities to the fairy tale. This isn’t a real problem for me because I generally felt this novel was more a discussion on race relations and racism than anything else.
I thought the first part of the book worked well, told from Boy’s point of view. She was raised in an abusive household by a single father and traumatized by his penchant for rat catching. When she turns 20, Boy flees from her father’s home in NYC to the small town of Flax Hill, MA, outside Boston. There, she begins her new life, finds new friends, and marries Arturo. She feels there is something weird or not trustworthy about Snow, which is about all I could suss out regarding the Snow White plot. The ‘evil stepmother’ sends away the child everyone loves and fawns over. This confused me because I wanted to know why Arturo didn’t object to his new wife sending his first daughter away. As a parent, I would never stand for someone wanting to send my kid somewhere else.
The second part was from Bird’s POV. This didn’t work as well, partly because of the epistolary element. Why not just give Snow her own section if you want her voice to be heard? Also, this was the section that seemed to have the most magical realism, such as how Bird says she doesn’t always appear in mirrors. These elements were later dropped entirely in the third part and we never got a resolution to them.
In the third part, which goes back to Boy’s POV, the novel just loses the plot. There is a lot of discovery and revelation but it felt contrived and not that connected to the story. It is here where it becomes the most apparent that the characters are also really flat and have been throughout. It was in this last part, about 25 or so pages from the end, where Boy learns that her father, Frank, was actually her mother. Frank had been Frances and she was a lesbian, but began living as a man after she was sexually assaulted in grad school. There was a really gross implication that transpeople become trans because of sexual assault and that they then proceed to become abusive sociopaths. Um, no. Just no. I am sure that’s not what Oyeyemi meant to imply, but the message is there nonetheless. I know that there are plenty of examples of people, especially women, living as men in the earlier parts of the 20th century (for example, Trenton Makes) and passing as men, similar to how some Black people passed as white. However, WHY? Why was the transgender thing even here? I don’t understand what it was supposed to add to the story; the story wouldn’t have changed one bit if Frank really was Boy’s father and her mother really had died in childbirth. Unless it is just to highlight to Boy that Arturo and Snow passing as white shouldn’t be the shock it was since her own mother had passed as something she wasn’t for Boy’s whole life, whether she knew it or not.
This was the first novel by Helen Oyeyemi that I’ve read and I do plan to read more by her. I liked her writing and the hidden bits of humor. Some of it was pure poetry on the page. I just didn’t care for this story or the way she handled trans issues.
Favorite part/ lines:
- 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.
- For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they’re around mirrors.
- The general advice is always be yourself, be yourself, which only makes sense if you haven’t got an attitude problem.
- If you wish to be truly free, you must love no one.
- I told her that magic spells only work until the person under the spell is really and honestly tired of it. It ends when continuing becomes simply too ghastly a prospect.
- She was only fifteen. At that age embarrassment is something you can actually die of.
- People underestimate the freckled.
- I’d have liked for him to say my name again, though. You know how it is when someone says your name really well, like it means something that makes the world a better place.
- Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away in them, setting two mirrors to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.