Every year, I think I’m insane when I sign up for too many reading challenges. But it is exactly these challenges that lead me to books that I might otherwise have missed, that make me discover authors that become favorites. Helen Oyeyemi is such an author. Her latest novel fit beautifully into some of my reading challenges, as well as my theme of the month. And it was so good, I already put all her other books on my soon-to-read list.
Published by: Riverhead, 2014
Hardcover: 308 pages
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.
- Snow White
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.
Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving, Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.
I had never read anything by Helen Oyeyemi before so this book hit me right in the feels without warning. There is so much beauty in this story, I hardly know where to start. Boy Novak flees from her abusive father and runs away to make a life for herself. She marries a wealthy man, Arturo Whitman, who has the most beautiful daughter anyone has ever seen. Snow, with her sleek hair and white skin, is everybody’s darling. When Boy is pregnant with her first child, she starts both fearing and resenting Snow for taking up her grandparents’ attention, for drawing away from her own unborn child. When Bird, their baby girl, is born, Boy sends Snow away and manages to keep her away for years and years. Bird grows up without having ever seen her own sister. Until one day she discovers a letter…
The novel is structured in three parts. The first and last are told from Boy’s perspective, the second one from Bird’s. In some genius way, Helen Oyeyemi managed to make every single character believable and likeable. I fell in love with Boy on the first page, when she runs away from her rat-catcher father whose punishments were highly original but all the more disturbing.
The easier Boy’s life gets, the more focus she puts on beauty, on her own looks, the more she worries about what she will look like when she is old. She even spins a tale with her best friend (an aspiring journalist) about a magician – ostensibly – but really about women and beauty. Boy doesn’t scream her views and fears at you but they are undeniably there, visible just beneath everything she says and does. It makes for an intriguing character, to say the least.
During Bird’s part of the novel, I got really sucked in and didn’t put the book down until I finished. Because Bird, of course, is born with darker skin. The Whitmans are really African Americans with very light skin, passing for white. The moral implications of their actions are discussed but neither condemned nor praised. The author leaves it up to her readers to make up their own minds. My mind didn’t take long making up. If you have the choice between living a life as an equal, fairly treated, full person and a life where you tell the truth about your family lineage but where you aren’t allowed to eat in certain restaurants, buy in certain shops, go to certain places at all – I know what I would choose. But the discussion point is valid. Skin color is part of what makes the Whitmans themselves, and they have a dark-skinned sister hidden away to remind them – and they gave up that cultural identity for a more comfortable life.
In one of her letters to Bird, Snow writes about the part of the family that doesn’t pass for white:
Great-aunt Effie is like that. She thinks there are treasures that were within her reach, but her skin stole them from her. She shinks she could have been somebody. But she is somebody.
Have I mentioned at all that Bird and Snow develop a friendship via letters? When Bird finds a letter adressed to her (hidden away by her mother), she writes Snow on a whim, trying to get to know her far-away sister. She has seen pictures of Snow’s otherworldly beauty, of course, but instead of being jealous (Bird is very pretty herself) she asks intelligent questions. Like what is it like to be seen first and foremost as something beautiful? Did Snow sometimes wish she looked more average? And does Snow also sometimes not show up in mirrors?
Mirrors, while not as front and center as in the fairy tale, are important throughout the story and especially during a revelation at the end. I don’t spoil books so you can read on safely. Mirrors play a part, but I could never, ever have foreseen that ending.
I realise this review is getting long already but I haven’t even told you about the gorgeous, gorgeous writing yet. Helen Oyeyemi is an economical writer. She doesn’t embellish her sentences with a million little flourishes. Instead she finds the right words, puts them together, and they just work.
Possibly the most beautiful thing in this book were its characters. I said before that I liked Boy, Snow, and Bird – they are vastly different people with very different dreams and hopes and problems. But they each have agency. Something so many (even good) authors fail at, is writing good dialogue. Either we get the kind where every line spoken is of the utmost importance for the plot, or we get the sort of dialogue where people just talk and talk without saying much. Helen Oyeyemi finds the middle path. People sometimes just ramble, make up crazy stories with their friends, but within these ramblings they say something about themselves. Like Boy’s made-up story about the magician, it is not just a yarn spun with a friend, it is also a cloak she can put over her feelings so she doesn’t feel naked.
Boy’s decision to run away from home (“home” includes a childhood best friend she truly loves) and marry someone to be safe from her father reveals so much about her. As does her choice to bring Snow back home after years of separation, for the sake of her daughter Bird.
A week later Dad made another trip to Boston and brought me back a gift from Snow – a small, square, white birdcage with a broken door. I hung the cage from the ceiling and watched it swing, and I was happy.
Needless to say, I loved Boy, Snow, Bird with the passion of a thousand fangirls. I want a sequel and a movie and a ton of fanart. How many times can you read a fairy tale retelling of Snow White and fall in love with the princess and the evil queen at the same time, after all?
RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection