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 inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s.
Boy Novak falls under a spell whenever she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, glass, a knife, anything that bounces light and casts a reflection back at her. When she marries Arturo Whitman and becomes stepmother to his daughter Snow, “an extraordinary-looking kid. A medieval swan maiden…”, Boy becomes jealous and obsessed with Snow and the idea that evil may be hiding under her amiable exterior. As Boy’s past has proven time and again “people can smile and smile and still be villains”. This dark, unsettling novel is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth and as a fairly young novelist, she continues to explore familiar themes of fantastical worlds, brimming with narratives on race, jealousy, and the perception of beauty.
Although the back cover of Boy, Snow, Bird advertises that the novel “brilliantly recasts the Snow White fairy tale as a story of family secrets”, outside of family drama and a character’s name very similar to Snow White (Snow Whitman), the blurb is misleading. Go into the book with knowledge that you will not read anything remotely resembling the fairy tale and save yourself frustration that many readers are having with this book. Boy, Snow, Bird is a re-imagining in the broadest sense of the word that plays wonderfully with some motifs in Snow White; this story delivers on magic mirrors, a desire to be the “fairest of them all”, and evil undertones push to the forefront.
Boy’s story starts in 1953 when she runs away from her home and abusive father, Frank Novak, also known as “the rat catcher” due to his profession. Boy escapes on a train to the end of the line and arrives at Flax Hill, Massachusetts “a town of specialists” and a far cry from her former life. Still toting a blanket belonging to her previous lover, she marries Arturo Whitman while unsure of whether she loves him. Arturo and Boy’s relationship is a strange one, birthed from a general loathing for each other, suddenly morphed into an attraction. And when she gives birth to a dark-skinned, clearly “colored” daughter, Bird, the Whitman’s are exposed as light-skinned African Americans passing as white. Rather than send Bird to live with Arturo’s dark skinned sister (keeping the family secret well hidden, as Olivia, Arturo’s mother, hopes) Boy sends Snow away instead. Although Boy’s intentions are “good” as her goal is to protect Bird from comparisons to a much more eurocentrically beautiful Snow, Boy gives into the role of evil stepmother when she chooses to send Snow away because she is too “fair”.
Snow’s beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl.
Split into three parts, the first and last chapter are narrated by Boy and the second is Bird’s, along with some letters between her and Snow revealing they both look into mirrors and sometimes do not see their reflections at all. Oyeyemi’s style is confident in all of it’s fantasy, providing sure footing for readers in an unfamiliar world as the story is lined with some nuggets of real life, such as Emmett Till’s slaying after whistling at a white woman, which the family discuss during a heated conversation over dinner. This helps draw us back to the weight behind the kind of impostor game the Whitman’s are playing. But in spite of stellar writing, Boy, Snow, Bird suffers from shortcomings any story with as many topics of discussion would; there are a hoard of half-baked characters – relatives, friends, friends of friends, that provide a layer of white noise and come in and out of the story. Added to the novel’s surreal style, this muddle of characters, and a lack of sense of character motives and relationships, makes for a disjointed plot that can be a slow read.
When Boy finds out the Whitman’s are actually black and sends Snow away, there are almost no consequences. There are basically no ramifications for anyone in the story, all of which do bad things. Oyeyemi makes an attempt to regain readers with a daring but undesirable twist, seemingly absolving all of the characters of any prior wrongdoing regardless of everything we just read. For some, this may beg the question; why is this story even being told? As this book is built from unreliable narrators and the notion that surface appearances are given way too much value I am hoping, like the mirror, Boy, Snow, Bird is just one of those things that needs a second, closer look to reveal its true meaning.
Book three out of ten book of summer.
Have you read Boy, Snow, Bird? I’m really interested to know what your thoughts are on it, or on this whole fairy tale “re-imagining” business in general. Is it possible to do that well? I am still under the impression that I may have to read this book again to get the full benefit of what Oyeyemi is trying to do, but we all know how that goes…