Boy, Snow, Bird – A Novel by Helen Oyeyemi -- I was lured to this book by false advertising--the publisher is billing it as a fantasy. It is not, but it is a good read, and despite the bait-and-switch by the publisher, I am glad I read it.
From the prizewinning author of Mr. Fox, the Snow White fairy tale brilliantly recast as a story of family secrets, race, beauty, and vanity.
In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
This is a book that is hard to categorize. It is a fantasy in some ways, and in others, it is a period piece chronicling the era of the 1950s through the 1970s. The novel spans two generations of women but unbeknownst to them, their lives are molded by the choices made by the grandparents.
The tale is told in the first person, from the point of view of two women, Boy and Bird. Boy is a girl who is hardened by her childhood. Her father is a cold, vicious man, who catches rats for a living. In all her life, she never thinks of him as ‘Father’ or Daddy’—only as the rat catcher. His cruelties eventually drive Boy to take some money and run away. She is blonde, so blonde that with her quiet reserve and inability to express love, she is frequently compared to the snow queen. All her life, she notices that at times she has no reflection in mirrors.
She ends up in a small New England town where the people are artists and craftsmen. She finds a landlady who rents to single women, and makes friends. She gets a job in a bookstore, and marries Arturo, a wealthy widower with a daughter named Snow. Snow is as pale and blonde as Boy, and her new in-laws frequently mention how she is the image of her late mother, who was a noted beauty.
At first her relationship with Snow is good. Boy loves Snow, and Snow is happier than she can ever remember being. Boy is a good stepmother, and despite her terrible childhood, she is determined to provide the sort of home she never had. For a time, all goes well.
However, with the birth of Bird, Boy and Arturo’s daughter, the first family secret comes out—Bird is obviously black, or colored as they referred to it in that era. Arturo and his entire wealthy family are light-skinned Negroes passing for white. Suffering from post-partum depression, Boy sends Snow away to live with Arturo’s dark-skinned older sister. At this point, Bird takes up the narrative.
I enjoyed this story, despite the fact it is not really a fantasy as it was billed. While it is a bit disjointed at times, it has a mystique. Three women whose reflections occasionally do not appear in mirrors and the obvious parallels to various fairytales make this urban tale unique.
Oyeyemi’s prose is literary, and her characters are well drawn with an economy of words. The atmosphere of the Boy’s world is clearly drawn. The rat catcher is evil; the town of Flax Hill is mysterious and magical in a way. I must say that this is not the sort of book I normally read, as despite the magical atmosphere of Flax Hill, reflections not appearing in mirrors, and the parallels to fairytales, it is most definitely NOT a fantasy—it is literary fiction.
I give it four stars because Oyeyemi’s prose and character building more than make up for the somewhat disjointed narrative. This is a compelling book, and if you are in the mood for literary fiction, I recommend waiting and buying the paperback, as the Kindle book is price outrageously at $11.99.