‘Boy, Snow, Bird’ by Helen Oyeyemi

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‘Nobody 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. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton. I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch. I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps’.

Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi, Pg.3

I remember reading all the hype surrounding Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, a couple of months ago in the blogging world and thought to myself, how have I never heard of this writer before? Her novels tend to take their basis from traditional fairytales, turning them into something completely different and completely relevant (something I admire in writers like Angela Carter). They merge the real with the magical, the mythical or folklore, incorporating the different cultures in which these narratives are embedded. In the case of Boy, Snow, Bird Oyeyemi takes as her inspiration the ‘evil’ stepmother trope from the popular Snow White fairytale, amongst many others.

Boy Novak, the motherless young woman who opens up the story with the wonderful quote above, has decided to flee her abusive ‘rat catcher’ father. She jumps on the first bus to arrive in New York and ends up in a mythical little town called Flax Hill in Massachusetts. There is an unsettling feeling about this place, which isn’t all that welcoming to newcomers. Everyone has a useful role in this small community, from the bookstore owner, Mrs Fletcher, to the history-teacher, turned jewellery maker, Arturo Whitman, widower and father of the beautiful, young Snow.

‘Her voice sounded exactly the way I’d thought it would sound. For some reason that scared me, so I didn’t stop at the gate to greet her even though I heard her saying “Hi” in a startled way. I just said “Hi, Snow” as if we’d met before, when of course we hadn’t, and I kept going, kept my gaze fixed on the road ahead of me. “Scared” doesn’t even really describe it. I almost crossed myself. It felt like the evil eye had fallen upon us both’.

Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi, Pg.25

From their first meeting Boy is unnerved by Snow, whose happy and content childhood stands in direct contrast to her own. Yet she cannot keep away from her. Boy is utterly bewitched and enchanted by Snow’s beauty and seeming innocence. Perhaps it is due to this beguilement and the fact that Boy ‘didn’t know how to start anything from scratch, and […] didn’t want to know’, that she agrees to marry Arturo, a man she knows she will never love. However, this feeling of being unable to start her own family from scratch changes when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird.

As this significant event occurs, which transforms Boy from the Cinderella-esque character into that of the wicked stepmother figure from Snow White, so, too, does the narrative point of view. We are catapulted into a new present where Bird is a teenage girl, living a relatively normal life. As Alex Clark states in her Guardian review of Boy, Snow, Bird: ‘We leap from a fairytale into something far more uncompromisingly concrete, in which phenomena such as mirrors and shadows have entirely different connotations’. The present is mid-century America where segregation laws are still solidly in place and the birth of Bird has revealed a deep, dark secret about the Whitman family that Arturo’s mother, Olivia, would have preferred to have kept dead and buried.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot as there are some wonderful twists and turns to this novel that I wasn’t expecting. Though one of the key themes that runs through Boy, Snow, Bird is the ever-elusive and fluid concept of identity. Just as Boy believes that ‘Maybe there is no Snow, but only the work of smoke and mirrors’, we are given hints from the beginning that everything is not as it seems. Characters we think we know, who we recognise from stories and fairytales embedded in our culture, turn out to be different from what we expect. Oyeyemi cleverly shows us that identity is not a fixed concept that is reflected back to us in a mirror – it is constantly changing, constantly evolving and constantly evading definition. I wish I could say more but I feel like I would ruin such a beautiful and engrossing novel. I can’t wait to read the rest of Helen Oyeyemi’s work, she has become a swift favourite.

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