Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
Helen Oyeyemi’s books are strange, otherworldly things filled with mysterious magical elements that are offered to the reader without judgement, without classification and often without explanation. Her latest book, the first after her induction in the Granta’s Best British Novelists group last year, is this year’s Boy, Snow, Bird which is about three women and certain family secrets from their past that change everything. Of course, that’s a very simplistic description of a complicated, intelligent novel that often flies with the fantastical, asking you to let go of firm ground.
“Suppose you’re born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty something,” says a young woman called Boy, with her own riff on the classic once-upon-a-time opening. She does not remember her mother and is raised by her father the “rat catcher,” a violent man who will “punch you in the kidneys, from behind, or he’ll thump the back of your head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around on the floor, stunned.” He is an “old-fashioned man” who catches rats by trapping some in a “basement [that] smells of sweat; the rats are panicking, starving” and using the mad, blinded, starving rabid rats to attack others. Boy lives with him under constant physical threat, letting her character develop “without haste or fuss” until at 20, she decides to run away from home and finds herself in a small town in New England called Flax Hill.
There isn’t much to lock into about the physical world of Flax Hill — hints, suggestions, feelings more than physical attributes, as if the world exists only when the characters interact with it. Flax Hill, says Boy, “misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in a slapdash manner.” The landscape here is all emotional and internalised — the town’s greatest defining feature being that “is a town of specialists,” filled with people using very specific skills and somehow managing, almost magically, to make a living. There are artists who make paint by numbers portraits, creators of bespoke wedding-cake toppers of brides and grooms with smiles that “suggested dark magic was afoot,” and Arturo, the man Boy eventually marries, who makes hand-crafted jewellery. Boy herself has no such skill so tries out random jobs until she settles into working at a bookshop, one that also deals in antique tomes that people travel great distances to purchase. Another element of magic here — a thriving small-town bookshop, where the proprietor is happy to let teenagers from lower income homes spend all day reading her wares for free.
Arturo gives Boy a bracelet — a white gold snake that winds its way up her wrists, pressing “its tongue against the veins in the crook of [her] elbow.” “Could that scream wicked stepmother any louder?” asks her friend Mia, referring to Arturo’s child from a previous marriage, the much loved six-year-old Snow, who charms Boy just as easily as she does everyone else. In fact, it is with Snow that Boy seems more intrigued than with Arturo — her marriage to Arturo (in true evil stepmother style) seems more for convenience than for love, partly based on her fascination with Snow. “Sure, she was an extraordinary-looking kid. A medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost,” describes Boy, who herself is an ‘icy blonde’. But when Boy and Arturo’s daughter Bird is born a “shade of gold,” Boy learns a secret about her husband’s family that changes everything. But it is not the baby who is in danger. Boy possibly suffers from post-natal depression, and “gray-skinned with exhaustion, fat around the middle, [her] eyes smaller than the bags beneath them,” she finds that “Snow’s daintiness grew day by day to menacing proportions,” until she begins to believe that “Snow is not fairest of them all.”
Oyeyemi’s fairy or folk tale references and influences in Boy, Snow, Bird are not limited to the story of Snow White. That is the most obvious reference, of course, from the very start of the book: Boy begins her story with the line “nobody warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy” and so she is cast in the role of Snow White’s stepmother, even before she or the reader fully realise it. But there are throwaway references to other tales too — when Boy’s shoe size increases during her pregnancy, she is pleased, imagining that her father will not be able to find her, would he arrive with a shoe in hand, saying “if the shoes fit, she’s mine.” Bird claims she is not visible in mirrors but can speak to spiders, sharing stories with them about Brer Anancy and Snow tells the story of La Belle Capuchine, the ‘poison damsel’ who has “ended the world 17 times.”
Boy, Snow, Bird is a peculiar, mostly enchanting story about family and racism, about ‘passing’ as white and about disguising yourself as a defence, intertwined with the writer’s great love for folk tales. This is fabulism, yes, which means there may be a great deal of suspension of disbelief about what the actual reality is. Oyeyemi takes plenty of risks with style and narrative, deftly and often with intelligent stealth.
Though there are a number of well-spaced out, interesting reveals, it is the final reveal that confuses and reduces much of the beauty of Oyeyemi’s earlier lilting narrative. It’s difficult to talk about it without spoilers, but this final reveal is entirely much too sudden. And though it falls into the book’s general themes of mirror images and ‘passing’, it still feels awkward and abrupt, leaving a fairly sour aftertaste for a book that didn’t seem to be heading in that direction until the very end. There is a certain horror in not being the ‘norm’ in Boy, Snow, Bird and Oyeyemi looks at not just what was considered acceptable in the 50s in terms of race but also in terms of gender. Regardless of the odd end, Boy, Snow, Bird is a charming, clever book. Just as she has been earlier, Oyeyemi is still very good at blurring lines — between reality and fantasy, between characters, narratives and worlds.