Review: Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird

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Title: Boy, Snow, Bird

Author: Helen Oyeyemi

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, imprint of Penguin Canada Books Inc.

Date Published: 2014

ISBN: 978-0-14-318743-1

Released on Monday of this week, Boy, Snow, Bird, a postmodern retelling of the classic Snow White, features Boy Novak who we meet as a fifteen-year-old who is subject to the violence of an abusive father. She leaves home in New York City as a teenager, running to the small town of Flax Hill where she finds an apartment and a job, and tries to make a new life for herself. I shouldn’t say this tale is a retelling, it’s more of a deconstruction and reinterpretation of Snow White, grabbing elements and themes of the story here and there and infusing them into the story through surrealist means (Boy and her daughter Bird can speak to animals, mirrors don’t always show reflections, etc.). Boy grows up. She has a family with a man whom she doesn’t quite love. She, her daughter, and her stepdaughter (Bird and Snow respectively) are all haunted in various ways by their reflections. Boy’s relationship with Snow begins with an unusual obsession, but as Boy moves into the house and has a child of her own, her relationship with Snow becomes troubled and what can be interpreted as jealousy and anger taint their interactions. Boy cannot stand Snow and has her sent away. She fears that this unearthly beauty will be the ruin of her and the life she has carefully constructed.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall…The infamous mirror permeates this story becoming a symbol of each woman’s vices and fears: vanity, insignificance, sorrow. Boy is caught up in her own vanity. Because of this, she is not completely likeable as a character, but she holds the reader’s attention in her strangeness. I was held captive by her. I didn’t understand her, but I desperately wanted to…in a good kind of way. She held on tight to me as I read, never letting me go. I think the point is that no one can really understand Boy as she doesn’t always fully understand herself or the reasons for her feelings: “But I didn’t know for sure that it wasn’t vanity running the show,” (21) or ” I think being objective may be the only way you’ll see that there’s something about [Snow] that doesn’t quite add up. Something almost like a smell, like milk that’s spoiled. Maybe it’s just as simple as her being an overpetted show pony; I don’t know. I’d be happy never to find out: (196-7). Boy does not understand her own vanity, and she doesn’t understand the reasons for her feelings towards Snow, but these feelings exist and are very real for her. Held by and torn down by abuse, in her freedom she finds beauty in herself, but it is this beauty that is her downfall. She is haunted by concepts of femininity and beauty and how that gives her control in her chaotic world. Oyeyemi shows that for Boy, beauty gives a woman power and when she is threatened by Snow with a loss of this power, she is unable to stand it.

For Bird, the mirror is a source of mystery and fear. She admits, “It was just like any other Saturday afternoon except that I walked past my bedroom mirror and something was missing, some tiny, tiny element… It was me. I wasn’t there” (157). Unlike her mother, who can’t escape the reflection that torments her, Boy (and Snow we later discover) can’t seem to find herself in the mirror. These two girls are fragmented, neither of them feeling completely whole. I believe that Bird looses herself in the shadow of Snow. She cannot seem to escape the lingering presence of her absent sister. Bird is not accepted by her grandmother and she does not feel that she can live up to the reputation of her sister’s beauty. Her relationship with her mother lacks indications of affection and so perhaps Bird doesn’t quite feel as though she belongs to the family, and in particular the woman she calls her mother. Bird’s absence in the mirror suggests a crisis of self-identity of a pubescent girl who is transitioning into womanhood, but who lacks understanding and support in what it means to be a woman.

Oyeyemi gives her characters strong, definitive voices. This story is told by two very prominent voices and one subtle and underlying voice. We hear mostly from Boy. She is thoughtful, often philosophical, and can be practical to a fault. She attracts love through beauty and mystery. She is captive to her own opinions and her own struggles. Her sentences are complicated and thoughtful, making subtle comments on race, sexuality, gender, and familial constructs. Bird acts as a contrast to Boy’s strong, even overpowering story. In her few short chapters, Bird is forced to bear the weight of telling her sister’s story as well, furthering the idea that Bird is restricted by the presences of the absent Snow. Bird’s voice is clear and observant. Her chapters create a distinction between the dark-skinned Bird and the pale Snow. Bird is intelligent and loyal, but her narrative shares the burden she carries of being perceived as less than Snow. She is the result of the themes prejudice, race, and gender that are so clearly defined in Boy’s chapters. Oyeyemi does an excellent job of differentiating the voices of her characters, although many times, Bird expresses herself in a way that is mature far beyond her thirteen years. I found it a little difficult to reconcile this discrepancy as Bird seems to have adult-like wisdom, but it is often contrasted by her child-like perspectives which somewhat helps to balance her sometimes too-mature voice. Snow’s voice is the one that lacks. Not only does her stepmother remove her from the Whitman household, she manages to almost entirely eliminate her voice from the novel. Snow is not given chapters in the book and her voice is conveyed though memories, letters, or through the eyes of other characters. The reader does not really get to know Snow as she knows herself. We get to know the Snow that the other narrators see.

The novel as a whole acts as a fantastical mirror of our own complicated reality. Perhaps Oyeyemi is telling us that we can never truly be happy. We strive to be one thing, but we are never able to achieve total control and total perfection in our lives. Some people are able to live with their imperfections, but for others it is a source of insanity. What we most value can also be what we most fear. Boy, Snow, Bird addresses the ways in which we construct our lives and the world around us. Often these constructs are falsities put in place to create a semblance of order and control in an otherwise uncontrollable world. By exploring themes of race, gender, power, love, and family, Oyeyemi creates a fantastical world in which nothing is as it seems.

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