Helen Oueyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (Kindle here) was dazzling. Fairy tale tropes got so twisted they became almost unrecognizable. But there’s also something familiar about Boy Novak and her daughter and stepdaughter, Bird and Snow. They are daughters, sisters, mothers–just like the ones we know. Boy and Bird are such whole, fully formed characters that I want to call them up tomorrow and buy them a drink. (Snow, though, remains elusive–but not to the story’s detriment.)
Boy is a young girl who ran away from her abusive father. She made a life for herself when she got off the bus at the end of the line at Flax Hill, a town full of craftsmen who make beautiful things.
Boy is a beautiful thing herself, and she knows it. She gets lost in mirrors, but her beauty won’t give her the thing she wants most–a family. For that, she turns to Arturo, a widower with a daughter named Snow. As Arturo’s wife and Snow’s stepmother, Boy eventually becomes pregnant with her daughter, Bird. When Bird is born, everything Boy thought she knew shifts into a slightly new reality.
Bird’s birth indicates a shift for the reader, too. What was a kind of love story (Boy loves her town and her friends, if not her husband) turns into a story of race, values, family, and what it means to lose yourself.
Boy isn’t perfect. I believe she loves her husband, but she isn’t so sure. She gets jealous and hurtful, she can lie with the best of them, and she can be vain. To Snow, she might even be a wicked stepmother.
And for all of this, I like Boy. She is real and human and makes real and human mistakes. No one has a perfect family, so everyone can relate to hers and how she survives in it.
There are few times where the stories Oyeyemi tells go a little over my head, but if I never get the point of “La Belle Capuchine” it doesn’t hurt the book and it’s still entertaining to read. (Actually, I just looked up Capuchin, and maybe now I get it after all.)
Some things I loved, or liked, or thought were just OK:
Women: This story is full of women. Strong women, weak women, old and young, beautiful and ugly. There are mothers and daughters and wives and single women and on and on. The variety of wonderful female characters is refreshing and beautiful but most importantly it’s interesting. You don’t have to be a woman to read it, either–you just have to want to read about fantastic characters you won’t find in other books.
Judgment: Or rather, lack thereof. Oyeyemi respects her characters no matter their background, their appearance, or their choices. Oyeyemi presents their behavior as matter of fact–as if she is saying this is who they are, and that’s OK. These characters often make mistakes or make choices different than our own, but they are all accepted and are just as much a part of the tale as anyone else.
Structure: Boy, Snow, Bird is split into three parts. The first two belong to Boy and Bird, and because of the title, I expected to hear from Snow. I was slightly disappointed when she didn’t get her own part, but I was so thrilled to hear from Boy again I wasn’t sad for long.
Tall tales: There are fairy tale references all over Boy, Snow, Bird, often pointing to the perverse instead of the happy-ever-after. (The more I think about the name Snow in this particular family for this particular girl, the sadder and more twisted it gets.) Lies are abundant, and magical realism pops up a few times–which works whether you take it literally or symbolically.
Language: Oyeyemi’s language is a delight. Her structure is simple, using carefully selected words to make a sharp observation or tell a funny story. Some of my favorites:
“Webster was seventy percent all right and thirty percent pain in the neck, one of those women who are corpselike until a man walks into the room, after which point they become irresistibly vivacious.”
“There’s something about being chased by a big strong man with yellowish eyes that makes you feel like an antelope in a bad situation.”
“I could see a woman trying to cover all the bases, searching for things her daughter would need in order to make friends with life.”
“…whatever it was that gave Alice the guts to stick up for herself when Tweedledum and Tweedledee informed her she wasn’t real.”
“It was the kind of house you went to in order to get well.”
“The general advice is always be yourself, be yourself, which only makes sense if you haven’t got an attitude problem.”
This was a book I was looking forward to this year, and it totally surpassed my expectations. Read it, please, and come talk to me about it because I finished it a few days ago and it has never left my mind for long.
(I picked out this book on my own and am not being paid to write about it. But if you buy through my links I will receive a little bit of money for it.)