Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

boysnowbird10booksofsummerdrunkoffrhetoricNobody 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…

Review: Euphoria by Lily King

euphorialilykingdrunkoffrhetoric
credit: bookcritic.org

It is a bit of a dance we three are in. But there is a better balance when B is here, too. Fen’s demanding, rigid, determined nature weighs heavily on one side of the scale and Bankson’s and my more pliant & adjustable natures on the other, equaling things out… Maybe it’s just we’re both a little in love with Andrew Bankson.

In 1930s New Guinea a young British anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, is on the brink of suicide. Frustrated with several unproductive years of field work studying the Kiona people, a tribe that unceremoniously throws twin newborns in a river out of superstitious ideals, he is overcome with loneliness and dissatisfaction – until he meets famous anthropologist Nell Stone and her husband Fen, a team stagnant in their own research. Although the desire to study the same region, lands, and people should turn them to rivals, the three larger than life egos are revitalized by each other’s company and enter a passionate love triangle filled with intellectual stimulation and dispute, sexual tension, friendship, and learning.

Lily King’s Euphoria is loosely based on the controversial and respected American culture anthropologist, Margaret Mead (Nell Stone), and her time researching along the Sepik River with husband Reo Fortune (Fen) and Gregory Bateson (Andrew Bankson). King tackles the expectation of factual information involved when writing a story about a prominent figure in history, with exceptional clarity. Like an anthropologist, King studies real events and people to understand the full scope and complexity in the story, and from this knowledge produces a confident and well-researched book. While Euphoria is inspired by real events and people, it is not a retelling or historical fiction. Instead, the novel takes creative liberties resulting in a wonderfully original piece that blurs genres between fiction and nonfiction.

When we first meet Nell she is half blind and weak with malaria, but still curious to take notes and ask questions about everything around her, at the disdain of her husband Fen. He prefers living as a member of the tribe, seldom taking notes and often with a plan of his own. The success of Nell’s previous fieldwork had overshadowed Fen’s career and their marriage. When the couple meet Andrew they take his company as a welcome break from each other, he acts as a buffer between the two and provides a fresh set of ears to bounce ideas off of, and after several years alone, Andrew gladly falls into this role in Nell and Fen’s relationship. Learning Nell Fen’s researching ideas and practices allows Andrew to find renewed interest in his own work and reach a point Nell describes as ‘euphoria’. She means it to be more than intense happiness, for Nell, euphoria is the feeling that comes specifically after months of confusion; meeting a new tribe, trying to assimilate to and learn their culture, documenting without your biases’. Euphoria comes with a sudden breakthrough and acceptance, granted to an anthropologist when they come to understand the subject in which they are studying.

euphorialilykingdrunkoffrhetoric
credit: monoskop.com From left to right: Bateson, Mead, and Fortune. 1933, Sydney.

When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?

Told through Bankson’s first person narrative and Nell’s fieldnotes, the story’s attention to detail adds a layer of authenticity despite King’s mostly liberal stance in making events in the book not correlate with Mead’s biography. King pulls us through the peaks and pits of Nell, Fen, and Andrew’s excursions and subsequent love triangle while providing technical content on their research, making for an immersive read on occurrences in anthropology during the early 1930s. And although the specifics of Mead’s life may not line up with this story, Euphoria will certainly make you wonder what really went on in her mind during this time of her life, and want to learn more about her.

*one of 10 books of summer

 

Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

fishermenThe things my brother read shaped him; they became his visions. He believed in them. I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.

Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, is the tragic story of four young brothers, Benjamin, Obembe, Boja, and Ikenna living in Akure, a village in Nigeria. When their father travels indefinitely for work, their boisterous mother is left to care for the four boys and their two baby siblings on her own. No longer fearing the iron rod of discipline when their father’s visits home grow more distant, the boys take to skipping school and fishing at a nearby river many people believe is cursed. One evening while the boys are fishing, they are approached by a madman, Abulu, who has a violent prophesy that Ikenna will be killed by one of his brothers.

Benjamin, the youngest sibling, is the voice and narrator of the story-a timid, unsure voice that speaks up only to affirm something his older brothers have said. Viewing the dismantling of relationships, their attempts to hide trips to the river from their parents, and the aftermath of Abulu’s poisonous words through Benjamin’s perspective is powerful and agonizing.

After that night on the river fifteen year old Ikenna changes. Growing more and more secluded, paranoid, and vengeful, he drives a wedge between the once close knit brotherhood that eventually swallows his entire family. Ikenna morphs from a loving older brother to a defiant fiend wrought with suspicion and anger, threatening his siblings and even his mother with beatings whenever they try to convince him the prophecy will not come true. There are short lived moments of clarity when Ikenna seems to know his actions are driving himself mad, but he is unable to control the roots of destruction that have taken residence in his mind.

When their father finally returns home it is long overdue and only after the damage is done. The face of his family has been beaten beyond recognition, and the comfort of familial trust has abandoned them.

He used to be a stronger man; an impregnable man who defended fathering so many children by saying he wanted us to be many so that there could be diversity of success in the family… And for many years, he’d carried this bag of dreams. He did not know that what he bore all those days was a bag of maggoty dreams; long decayed, and which, now, had become dead weight.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and last year. In this debut novel Chigozie Obioma manages to remind African literature lovers of fellow acclaimed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart), which is no small feat, being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. His characters are shaped with tremendous care, making each moment of their undoing all the more heartbreaking. Obioma’s use of imagery, metaphor, and cultural idioms paint a visceral picture of 1990s Nigeria, referencing events like MKO Abiola’s run for presidency and the remnants of the Biafran War. The Fishermen takes a close look at the superstitious nature, fate, religion, and politics in Nigeria, giving light to a great story in a palpable setting that makes you feel as if you’re rolling in the colorful market streets with these young boys, through their terrible coming of age story.