Boy, Snow, Bird

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Thursday, April 17, 2014
my library copy the day I had to take it back

Helen Oyeyemi is not a straight-ahead writer. She deals in the things that happen out of the corner of the eye - stuff you subconsciously know is there (or fear is there), but can’t quite see - she understands the strange obliqueness of fairy tales. It’s so frustrating to read reviews of this book on Goodreads that are upset because the blurb (UGH BLURBS) promised a retelling of Snow White and this is not that. I enjoy retellings, but I especially enjoy when a writer can take the spirit of a thing and fashion it into something new, wholly itself. It’s not Snow White just like it’s not Cinderella - the fairy tale similarities are in the telling and the relationships, not the exact logistics of the tale. Oyeyemi gets better than most the weird dark strangeness of a fairy tale, which is also the weird dark strangeness of life. Mirrors lie, small magics seem possible, curses are real, things appear to be what they are not and are not what they appear to be. But in all of the Oyeyemi books I’ve read (3 of 5), it’s possible for characters to become aware of their narrative in a way Snow White never could. It’s not about Prince Charming, it’s not about being good and pure of heart - it’s so much more complicated.

Boy is our heroine’s name. Her skin is white as milk, her hair so blonde it’s almost white. Her father, referred to only as ‘the Rat Catcher,'  has long soft hands, a penchant for poison and is one of the creepiest characters I’ve read in a long time. Boy grows up, runs away from the Rat Catcher, builds a new life and becomes stepmother to Snow (a beautiful child with a dead mother) and mother to Bird (also a beautiful child). COMPLICATIONS ENSUE. The jacket gives away what could be a spoiler, or could be someone’s point of entry into this book, so I’ll mention it: Bird is born with dark skin and thereby reveals her father’s family secret - they are light skinned African Americans (or ‘colored’ in this book since it’s set in the 50s-60s) and have been passing as white for years.

The book is primarily about women and relationships between women, which is another thing that makes it interesting and unusual in today’s literary landscape. Here’s Oyeyemi in a Guardian interview where she gets to the meat of the story:
"For me Boy, Snow, Bird is is very much a wicked stepmother story. Every wicked stepmother story is to do with the way women disappoint each other, and encourage each other, across generations. A lot of terrible things can come out of that disappointment. I also wanted to explore the feminine gaze, and how women handle beauty without it being to do with men, per se. The women all want approval from each other, and are trying to read each other. I also wanted to look at the aesthetics of beauty – who gets to be deemed the fairest of them all. And in Snow White that is very explicitly connected with whiteness. It had to be an American story because "passing" is an American phenomenon."
The book is divided into three sections (I think! I had to return it to the library so I don’t have it right here in front of me). The first is from Boy’s POV, then from Bird and Snow, and then back to Boy. I really enjoyed this book - its still sending out little ripples in my brain a week later and I expect it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. RECOMMENDED!

Oh, wait! here's one more quote from the book - this is from the Bird section and doesn't really have much to do with anything discussed above, except how Bird is an excellent narrator: 
The note read BARBARA THOMAS IS FAST and inquiring minds wanted to know whether this was true, and what Barbara Thomas was going to do to try and prove her innocence. Louis looked as if he was feeling sorry for her, especially when I pointed out that the only way she could prove she wasn’t fast was by never kissing another boy until the day she died. But I couldn’t think of a better person for such a thing to happen to, so I laughed. Going to middle school in the same building as the high school students makes you see the reality. School is one long illness with symptoms that switch every five minutes so you think it’s getting better or worse. But really it’s the same thing for years and years. (p. 202)
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