Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I’m writing this in the afternoon watching the steady snowfall from a cafe window. It’s been snowing like this all day. Light, unassuming snow that accumulates until you can’t walk outside anymore. By morning, I’ll have to dig myself out of my apartment.

Boy Snow BirdBoy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is a lot like the weather right now. A really beautiful narrative that builds on itself layer by layer until you’re holding a story that’s as deep and heavy as a snowbank.  The novel is a disguised version of Snow White, published by Penguin, and it borrows many of it’s themes from the fairy tale, like beauty, vanity, deep secrets, and family drama.
A young woman named Boy Novak arrives in the small town of Flax Hill after her abusive father in New York City. She finds work at a bookstore while living in a boarding house, until she meets and marries a local widower named Arturo Whitman. Arturo is father to an 8 year old daughter named Snow who, in true fairy-tale fashion, is the fairest-of-them-all: a gorgeous and captivating girl.  In the beginning, Boy and Snow seem to get along fine, eschewing the “evil stepmother” trope, until Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird. Surprisingly, Bird is born with dark skin and thus reveals the Whitmans’ secret: that they are an African-American family that have been posing as white ever since they arrived in Flax Hill. The novel is set in the early 1950s where segregation and race discrimination is still largely a concern. In Flax Hill, schools have only just begun teaching both white and coloured children together. The Whitmans, being lighter skinned, have maintained that identity in order better their opportunities. Once Bird is born, Boy, for reasons that could be read as good or evil, empathy or jealousy, sends Snow away to live with her aunt, exiling her from the family.

In three separate parts, we get to hear the conflicted voices of each woman: Boy, Snow and Bird. The novel slows a bit in the middle section when Bird takes over the narrative with letters to her sister. Her voice, however, is full of pre-teen musings that’s a perfect mix of self consciousness, imagination and budding worldly-awareness. The estranged sisters try to sort out the complicated reasons behind their separated upbringings and the attitudes of those around them. From daughter to mother to grandmother, each woman carries with them the burden of the mirror and finding their place in the world alongside one another. Oyeyemi’s characters are flawed, every one of them, but her writing is rich and flowery. There isn’t one villain or one heroine in Boy, Snow, Bird. Instead, Oyeyemi lets her women take turns as each, giving us a chance to see the many sides of a curious and engaging tale.

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