I cannot imagine what my childhood would have been like without the fairytales I grew up with. It didn’t matter what form they came in: Disney movies, colorful picture books, whispers in the dark as I curled up on my grandmother’s lap. They shaped me to imagine, to fear, to love, to hope, to learn. My first recollection of a fairytale was that of Snow White. To be perfectly honest, if you had asked me then or now, it wasn’t my absolute favorite. A bold, modernist, captivating version written (and soon to be published) by Helen Oyeyemi, entitled Boy, Snow, Bird, has forced me to view this old Grimm’s tale in a whole new light.
This is my first foray into Helen Oyeyemi’s writing and, so far, it lives up to the hype. She’s got the magic and it’s evident with every turn of the page. Please note that I’ve decided to take a new tactic with this review. Boy, Snow, Bird is divided into three parts and, since I have limited pleasure-reading time nowadays, I plan on writing three posts to coincide with them as I keep reading.
In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as lightskinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold. Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving, Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.
Strangely evocative, dark, deceptive, and enchanting all at once, Oyeyemi has captured the essence of fairy tales and gently pressed it into the pages of a modern story. At first glance and, indeed, for the entire first part, it takes a keen observer to realize what Oyeyemi is shaping her novel upon. On the surface, it is the tale of a young, white woman who runs away from an abusive, oppressive father. Upon reaching her unplanned destination, she starts to make a life for herself. She begins to discover her spirit, her mettle, and learns to have fun, to sacrifice, and to love.
Boy finds herself quickly understanding that love is not the be-all and end-all to existence. I appreciated that Oyeyemi stayed away from the traditional romantic, Prince Charming plot line, allowing for other darker and more realistic possibilities. Boy soon finds herself married to Arturo, a kind widower, but not for love. She becomes stepmother to his daughter, Snow, an enchanting little girl whom she both admires and fears. When Boy gives birth to a child of her own, the child comes out “colored”, revealing that Arturo and his entire family have been light-skinned Blacks posing as whites. The time period being the 1950s, this proves to be deeply unsettling to Boy, but not for reasons one may think. When I finally pulled myself away from the book, ending Part 1, Boy has sent Snow away to live with her aunt. The motivations behind her decision have compelled me to consider the archetype of “the wicked stepmother” in a whole new light. Safe to say I can’t wait to see the developments as they unfold.
Oyeyemi has blended a number of traditional stories–the fairy tale, the coming of age story, a romantic tale, the bond between a mother and her child–and spun out an exquisitely rich new take on them all. I couldn’t help but read late into the night, devouring Boy’s journey, for many reasons. The characters are vivid; one can’t help but immediately feel a sense of empathy, dislike, or connection to every person that strolls across the chapters. The writing ensnares the reader. There were moments when I couldn’t bear to continue reading but it seemed worse to skip over or look away. Once you start, you’re a willingly captive audience.
Boy, Snow, Bird releases on March 4, 2014 in Canada and March 6, 2014 in the United States.