Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird* deserves all the attention it’s attracting; it’s a beautiful, lyrical novel, thrumming with life and grappling with difficult issues of love, aesthetics, race, trauma, and identity.
Boy Novak flees both home (New York City) and her abusive father for life in small-town Massachusetts. Drifting from job to job, and occasionally frightened by her own strangeness (“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak; it just seemed smarter not to. All of a sudden it felt as if I had far too many teeth, more teeth than it was decent to show” [45.]), Boy eventually settles down with a former professor (now jeweler) Arturo Whitman and his beautiful, enchanting daughter, Snow. However, when Boy’s daughter, Bird, is born, a secret is revealed that leads Boy to send Snow away when “Snow’s daintiness grew day by day, to menacing proportions” (142). Boy becomes a wicked stepmother in absentia.
Time passes, however, and Snow and Bird prove themselves determined to reunite, to find out the whole truth (Bird is a budding journalist) — because there’s another woman missing from their story.
I loved Boy, Snow, Bird. The characters’ voices are distinct, witty, and smart, and the reworking of the Snow White fairytale surprised me at nearly every turn. While it deploys the same tactic that makes C.S. Lewis’s Til We Have Faces so brutally brilliant — that is, telling an established myth from the point of view of the “evil” character — Boy, Snow, Bird is even more expertly layered. The veneer of magic both conceals and reveals our own preoccupations with perception and the practice of looking.
Reviewers and readers have, justifiably, focused on the novel’s engagement with race (Ron Charles in the Washington Post has a particularly good paragraph about it, which you can read here). I’d also like to point out that the novel consistently reminds us of what it’s like to be a woman, and therefore constantly looked at (by others and by yourself). One of Boy’s teenage friends from the bookstore where Boy works, a girl named Sidonie, is catcalled every day on her way home from school (disturbingly, street harassment hasn’t changed much from the book’s 1953 setting); one of the ways that Snow is initially marked as “young for her age” is that “she hadn’t yet learned to smile even when she didn’t feel like it” (71). She hasn’t learned, in other words, the right face to show the world that’s looking at her.
And then there’s the lead up to a terrifying episode of abuse that Boy’s father, a rat catcher, perpetrates. Two weeks before her escape, Boy walks home with her boyfriend of sorts. Boy’s father greets them at the door: “‘I’ve seen the way you look at my daughter. You think she’s pretty, don’t you?'” Then:
They both turned to me and went on a looking spree. I left them to it and wished I could sail over their heads and into the acid blue sky. They didn’t look for long, it was more a practiced series of glances; they knew what they were looking for and seemed to find it. It was a wonder there was anything left by the time they were through looking. (120)
After the rat catcher (as Boy thinks of him) threatens to mar Boy’s beauty, to scar her badly enough that only a “true love” could accept her, Boy comes to the conclusion that “no matter what anybody else said or did my father saw something revolting in me, and sooner or later he meant to make everyone else agree with him” (123). Is it any wonder that Boy fears the face that looks back at her from the mirror, the face that sometimes isn’t hers?
It’s in articulating the tension between the fear of beauty and the craving for it that Ms. Oyeyemi truly shines.
Tomorrow: An interview with Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird
*My thanks to the Riverhead Books for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.