Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

My third Oyeyemi. She is brilliant and fascinating; her books have a momentum of their own. I am often left with the sense that she is smarter than me, that more is happening here than I was able to grasp. Gingerbread was the novel of hers that I most enjoyed, The Icarus Girl was the most confusing, and this one fits in the middle of the list by both measures.

I am going to keep this summary pretty brief, because there are some good-sized spoilers in the novel. We meet our protagonist, Boy Novak, when she is in her late teens. She has white-blond hair, a face somewhere between ‘harsh’ and ‘fine-boned,’ and a fascination with mirrors. She speaks to other versions of herself in them. She may be lonely. She lives in Manhattan with her father, a rat catcher and seriously abusive, until she runs away at age 20. She takes the last bus of the night to the end of the line, arriving in Flax Hill, Massachusetts in 1953 with few possessions, but she is able to start fresh, making friends, dating, working odd jobs, eventually marrying a man with a craft, a family, and a dear daughter named Snow. Part One is told in Boy’s first-person voice, but Parts Two and Three will shift perspective.

I can go no further with summary. The setting remains chiefly in Flax Hill, with exposition traveling to Boston, Mississippi, and back to New York. Oyeyemi’s characters are completely fascinating; among the secondary characters I love most are Mia, a driven journalist and free-thinker, and Mrs. Fletcher, who runs a bookshop and acts as a bit of a community mentor. Boy, Snow, Bird is concerned with race and gender identity, the true nature of love, family dynamics, damage and forgiveness, sisterhood, motherhood, and national and societal patterns around race and racism. It is billed as a bit of a riff on the Snow White tale, but is not exactly a retelling. There is the girl Snow; there is a stepmother who is (at one point) accused of evil; there is something strange going on with mirrors, and not only for Boy. There is definitely some commentary on vanity, beauty, and the shaping of family by these means. But it strays quite far from the fairy tale. Actually, this would be an awfully interesting one to study alongside stricter retellings. I feel unable to say more.

There are lots of images and concepts that I’m going to keep revisiting. I’m not sure I got it all: not always a comfortable feeling, but certainly a stimulating one. No question, I’m going to continue my study of Oyeyemi. Stay tuned. I do recommend this one, and feel free to come back and explain it to me.


Rating: 7 records.

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