Book of the Week: ‘Boy, Snow, Bird’ by Helen Oyeyemi

I’m glad I decided to read Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird before I realized it was a riff on Snow White. The postmodern, politically charged fairy-tale rewrite that was subversive when Angela Carter published The Bloody Chamber in 1979 is a cliché 35 years later, and a novel that transports the story to a small New England town in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement might have sounded too familiar.

But Oyeyemi, the 29-year-old author of five books and member of Granta‘s latest Best Young British Novelists class, is one of contemporary literature’s most adept manipulators of myth, and her deconstruction of the fairy tale is no simple political parable. It is so subtle, in fact, that — despite beginning with protagonist Boy Novak’s musings on the deceptiveness of mirrors and later introducing a character named “Snow Whitman” — the parallels only rarely struck me as I was reading. Boy, Snow, Bird doesn’t quite retrace Snow White’s steps; instead, the story lingers in the novel’s subconscious like the cultural memory that all fairy tales are.

The story begins in 1953, when Boy (a teenage girl) escapes from her abusive father, a rat catcher whose profession seems perfectly matched to his sadistic personality — or vice versa. Our icy-beautiful young narrator seems to walk straight out of a noir film, riding the bus from New York City to small-town Massachusetts, where she finds a boarding house and seeks a job. Slowly, she builds a quiet life for herself, making friends with a husband-hunting roommate and a sort of visionary newspaper reporter, taking a job at a bookstore, and eventually marrying a local widower whose daughter she finds bewitching.

Although it’s shot through with surreal moments, Boy, Snow, Bird grounds its fantastical elements in realistic description and sharp observations about the world Boy inhabits. Oyeyemi sets this balance in the novel’s first showstopping passage, which reproduces an article the journalist, Mia, has written about her undercover investigation into “the secret world of blondes.” The piece quickly morphs into an allegory about gender, beauty, and power, telling the tale of a magician blessed with the ability make ugly women gorgeous. He can also make gorgeous women ugly, a feat he’ll only perform for an exorbitantly high fee, for men who can’t control their wives or daughters — until, one day, he encounters a woman his spells don’t work on:

“Grow wings,” he told her. “Bear fruit.” She did neither. He pursued her for miles of farmland, got in the way of all her daily tasks, issued command after command, whatever came into his head. “Become a walking stick!” She didn’t. His voice grew hoarse. At last he admitted that she was a formidable witch, and that he was willing to learn whatever she could teach him.

“It isn’t magic,” she said. “It’s just that I’m well dressed. You men who try to tell me I’m a scarecrow or try to grab my arm but can’t manage it, don’t you understand that you’re not really addressing me? It’s more as if you’re talking to a coat I’m wearing.”

The line between fantasy and reality blurs soon after, when Boy marries Arturo Whitman and becomes that most dreaded of fairy-tale creatures: a stepmother. There is a supernatural quality to her fascination with Arturo’s daughter, Snow — and when Boy gives birth to a daughter of her own, we’re reminded of how similar infatuation and repulsion can be. The baby girl, Bird, has unmistakably African-American features, her mere existence exposing the tellingly named Whitmans as a black family passing for white.

Some critics have argued that Boy, Snow, Bird‘s jacket copy, which reveals this twist, spoils the book. I’d counter that Oyeyemi offers enough revelations on each page, even at sentence level, that knowing the direction the story’s heading in didn’t diminish my experience at all. Look at this gleaming passage, for instance, which only tangentially relates to novel’s plot:

I think I decided not to love Charlie because I thought I had to be rescued. For practical reasons but also as a proof of love. It’s better that Charlie and I didn’t make an automatic transaction, love exchanged for rescue. All you can do after that is put the love and the rescue up on the shelf, moving them farther and farther back as you make room for all the other items you acquire over the years. This way a ragged stream still grows between us, almost pretty. Though really we should crush it now, before the buds bloom skeletal.

Gripping as its narrative is, Boy, Snow, Bird can’t be spoiled because it is a novel of ideas and imagination, confidently blending influences from the Grimms to old Hollywood and Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing. Through strands of fantasy, its argument about the pernicious power of artificial categories like race to shape how we see ourselves, the world around us, and reality itself comes into focus. The book’s elegance is in Oyeyemi’s understanding of the similar, subconscious ways that fairy tales and prejudices proliferate within cultures and across generations. In dreamily evoking our irrational collective mythology, she casts an irrational phenomenon in a rare, new light.