Saturday 18 April 2015

Boy, Snow, Bird

(April 2015)

This is a beautiful book, both in terms of the cover (it’s even better in reality than on the screen) and the contents. Based on this it’s very easy to see why Oyeyemi has been lauded as one of the best British writers of her generation. It’s not quite a masterpiece though. The first 90% is outstanding, but I’m still not quite sure what happened at the very end, or how I should deal with it. That shouldn’t detract from the rest of the book but somehow, y’know…

Let’s back up. This is a reworking of Snow White, told primarily from the perspective of her wicked step-mother. Though of course on the matter of her own wickedness Boy (for that is her name) is decidedly ambivalent, and that’s an ambivalence – about identity, about belonging, about ‘passing’ – that runs through the entire book. Boy runs away from her abusive father in New York and settles the small town of Flax Hill, eventually marrying the widower Arturo Whitman. It’s only when their daughter is born that Boy discovers the Whitmans are a Black family passing as white: the scene immediately after the birth of the dark-skinned Bird, when Arturo’s mother insinuates that Boy has been having affair despite knowing full-well the reason for Bird’s colouration, is excruciating.

The most obvious point of comparison is, I suppose, The Human Stain, but unlike Roth’s never-less-than-Significant prose Oyeyemi’s style is joyously light. The first half of the book is told by Boy, who is possessed of this other-worldly ambiguity that perfectly represents her sense of detachment from the world and her life in it, and nevertheless manages to be refined and sardonic without ever falling over into cynicism or brute sarcasm. We then jump forward thirteen years and meet Bird, as the second section presents events through her eyes and a series of letters between her and her step-sister (Snow having been banished by Boy shortly after Bird’s birth). These are heartbreaking, and Bird’s voice is wonderfully realized, managing to be charming and smart without ever falling into the awkward ‘precociousness’ that bespeaks of a writer belatedly regretting the limits imposed by their choice of a teenage narrator. Also very funny:

Dad drive and Mrs. Chen drives but Aunt Mia just gets behind the wheel and hopes it’s another one of her lucky days.

The final section bring us back to Boy, who is faced some closing revelations about her own family. This section is by far the shortest (forty pages or so) and also the weakest. Thematically I can see what was going on here, and it ties into and consolidates the preoccupations of the rest of the book very effectively. Too effectively, perhaps. The actual subject matter only seems to relate thematically; taken as an extension of the story itself it comes out of left field a bit, and it does feel like either the author didn’t trust the reader to draw the ‘correct’ conclusions, or just that she found herself in possession of a great idea that she just ‘had’ to include, even if it spoiled the elegance of the rest of it. Lord knows I’m certainly not innocent of the crime of trying to fit too much into a piece of writing, but then I’m clearly not anywhere near as good a writer as Oyeyemi.

Still, the preceding 270 pages represent a novel’s worth of excellence in and of themselves, and the weaving of fantasy and reality that Oyeyemi affects is simultaneously uplifting and devastating. A wonderful book.


  1. Oh man, I was kind of disinterested in this book when I heard it was a retelling of a fairy tale. That just does nothing for me. But hearing you talk about it makes me really want to read it! It sounds so good! As a kid, I somehow stumbled upon Oyeyemi's book Icarus Girl. It was my favorite forever, even though I don't know if I understood it at the time. She's great.

    1. I'd definitely recommend it. The longer I think about it, the less impressed I am by the final section, but what comes before is very good. It's a very straight, real-world retelling as these things go; you can read the fantastical into it if you are so inclined, but it's equally possible to treat everything as completely mundane without every getting into magical realism or the like.