Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird

Written by: Helen Oyeyemi

Published: 2014

Synopsis: 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 light-skinned 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.

“... it's not whiteness itself that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness. Same goes if you swap whiteness out for other things-- fancy possessions for sure, pedigree, maybe youth too... we beat Them (and spare ourselves a lot of tedium and terror) by declining to worship.”

It isn't often that I go out and buy a book a blogger recommended and read it immediately. In most cases I add it to my never-ending list and then when I'm at the library I'll pull out my list and see what's available. But for some reason Emily's mini-review of Boy, Snow, Bird captured my attention and when I happened to see the book in a bookstore the next day I snapped it up and started reading it on my bus ride home.

Boy, Snow, Bird is a sensationally written book that deals with some extremely heavy subjects. Not only does it examine race in 1950's America, but it really digs into feminist issues of the time, marriage, abortion, gender roles in the workplace, gender identity and same-sex relationships. And while these issues could make it a seriously dense and depressing novel it's actually the complete opposite. Because all of these issues are tied up with the families and relationships in the narrative, it ends up a sombre story, sure, but it also has this sense of strength that stops it from being a depressing mind-swamp. Not to mention that it's almost entirely populated by female characters that are so full of life it's worthy of a god damn celebration! They're complicated and nuanced and they make shitty decisions based on the times and unfairly judge some people but oh my god, they are all wonderful. The men have important roles (especially Arturo, father, son, husband) but the story is ultimately about women, about matriarchs, about female rebellion and female sexuality. It's about women who don't fit into the time they were born and buck tradition and women who are strong but don't feel strong enough to stand up to a system that seems unbreakable and immoveable. I am 100% ready to bow down and worship at the alter of Helen Oyeyemi. Did I mention that she's still in her 20s? How do you even construct such a complicated and inspiring and effective story when you're that young? I am in awe, seriously.

There's a lot of talk about this book using Snow White as a jumping off point. If you look at some of the reviews on Goodreads it's clear a lot of readers were expecting a modern-day retelling of the fairytale, rather than a story which takes some thematic elements and weaves it into a new narrative. Yes there's a character called Snow, yes there's tension between her relationship with her step-mother, but it's nothing like the fairytale so make sure you leave that preconception aside when you pick up this book. One stark similarity though is the role of mirrors in both the fairytale and Boy, Snow, Bird. The mirror in Boy, Snow, Bird doesn't speak, but it reveals a great deal. It becomes analogous for the broader concepts of trustworthiness, deception and hiding in plain sight. The scenes with mirrors flit between reality and fantasy with a feel of Jeanette Winterson, and while on paper I'd say that it seems incongruous with the utterly (and at times heartbreakingly) realistic narrative, these small fantastic touches seem completely at home with Bird, Snow and Boy and the story of their relationships.

My only problem with the book is the ending. Not only is there a twist-type reveal that comes very suddenly (as in the last 4 pages) without any real sign-posting but it also feels incongruous with the thrust of the novel. I can't really discuss it without major spoilers, but I can't help but wonder what Oyeyemi wants us to take away from it. How does it fit with the rest of the book? Is it deliberately meant to feel separate or disparate? If you've read the book I'd love to discuss this with you in the comments. But while I don't think I was a fan of it as an ending, it also doesn't take anything away from the brilliance of the preceding pages.

I've started to notice this book popping up on more and more blogs so it probably doesn't really need my endorsement to gain well-deserved attention, but I'm going to endorse away anyway. It's really rather brilliant, literary and intelligent but grounded enough to appeal to any reader, distant enough to discuss lofty or troubling topics objectively while also feeling completely accurate and emotionally hard-hitting. I finished it feeling like I'd read a call to arms. A call to arms for what exactly I'm still not sure. Family bonds? The Sisterhood?  The dissolution of bigotry in our lifetime? Recognition as full and complete people regardless of how we identify? Perhaps that'll depend on the reader, or perhaps it's a little bit of all of the above. Either way, it's a stunning book and a must-read.


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