Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Rating: 5 stars
I read this book from the library.
I absolutely loved Boy, Snow, Bird.
I say that out the outset, because I’ve run across very polarizing reviews. It seems people either really, really love it, or really, really don’t.
What it comes down to, I think, is that you’ve got to push the “fairy tale retelling” out of your mind. Oyeyemi uses folklore and fairy tale to deepen her prose, but if you’re looking for a straight sendup of Snow White you’re looking in the wrong place. Fairy tale characters are, by definition, uncomplicated, archetypal. There’s nothing uncomplicated about the characters here.
In midcentury Manhattan, there lives a girl named Boy. She is beautiful, and certain moments in her life show her that beautiful is dangerous. She fears destroying anything that she comes to love, and so she escapes to Flax Hill, Massachusetts and marries a man that she does not love. His daughter, Snow, is a perfect, almost unreal child, and Boy loves her. But when her own daughter, Bird, is born, she sends Snow away–perhaps out of selfishness, perhaps for everyone’s safety, perhaps for all kinds of reasons at once.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel of passing–passing as white, passing as female, passing (or refusing to pass) as someone worthy of love. The repeating motifs–mirrors, sevens, vermin–pile on to make the narrative dense. It’s a novel that skews expectations of place, time, and voice. And it is beautifully written.
I have only recently learned of Oyeyemi, so I’ve only had a chance to read two of her books: this, and her first, The Icarus Girl. That one felt really uneven to me, and had some of the same problems as Boy, Snow, Bird (a tenuous sense of plot; a spiraling, unsatisfying ending that raised more questions than you want in a resolution). But Oyeyemi’s prose is undeniably powerful and evocative, and her characters are so strong. I loved Boy more than any other character I can think of in recent memory. She is cold. She is steel. She may or may not be evil (just as anyone, anywhere, can carry something evil inside of them). She’s determined to make the most of her own choices, and forge a life based on her own terms. Her voice was not pleasant and nice and feminine, but neither was she the cackling evil queen desperate for youth and beauty. And I liked that, enjoyed her hardness and coldness and aloofness. It was fascinating to see her character unfold.
The ending of the book kind of sucked, but I don’t care. At all. While it came out of left field, it forced me to completely reevaluate the first section of the book, and suddenly it didn’t seem so odd. My main complaint is instead a structural thing that bugged the hell out of me. With the title being Boy, Snow, Bird, and it being split into three parts, I expected three narrators: Boy, Snow, and Bird. Instead it goes Boy, Bird, Boy, with a few letters thrown in from Snow every once in awhile. It drove the OCD part of my brain absolutely nuts. But that’s just the way I am.
Boy, Snow, Bird works better as a character study than as a novel. I think readers will find a lot to love in it, but be warned that those things may not be what you expect.