Boy, Snow, Bird
By Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead Books (Penguin) | 2014 | 308 pages | $27.95
Reviewed by Janet Garber
Not the Disney Version
Helen Oyeyemi is the real thing, a literary prodigy. Somewhat of a world citizen (she was born in Nigeria and raised mostly in Britain), at 29, she already has five books under her belt. Boy Snow Bird is her provocative retelling of the classic fairy tale, Snow White, one she has run through the mixer and made to come out with messages relevant to our 21st century world. Open the first page and dive in.
If you blanched at the predicament of Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue,” what will you think of Oyeyemi’s Girl Named Boy, Daughter Named Bird, Stepdaughter Named Snow? And that’s just the opening assault on the your cherished notions of sex, gender, and race.
Many other critics have divulged all the secrets in this novel – I would not want to deprive you of the shock and thrill of uncovering the book’s mysteries for yourself. “So, that’s what this is about!” you say. Personally, I almost jumped out of my chair, so unprepared was I for The Big Reveal. Do yourself a favor and Do Not Read any other reviews. Stay away from the blurbs on the book jacket. The author does not hint at the revelation, which is what makes it all the more delicious.
So, caveats in place, prepare to read a story in which the women characters predominate; the men have tangential roles. The story is simple enough; the motives opaque; the characters just barely glimpsed in the mirrors. A young woman, Boy, hops a train out of the city to escape her brutal father and lands in a small Massachusetts town, determined to make a place for herself among the artsy-craftsy inhabitants. She marries a widower, seems to take to his beautiful daughter, has her own daughter, then mysteriously banishes the stepdaughter as others in the husband’s family have done with their daughters over the years. No one steps in to stop this cruel punishment.
Boy’s motives, her thoughts and desires, remain rather opaque throughout – I often found myself wondering what she was feeling. She comes face to face with several world-changing events over which she has little control, yet the author lets us see only what her actions are, never her reactions. So she remains always at a distance, which plays into the perverse fairy tale atmosphere of the book. I say, perverse, meaning the original fairy tale has been remastered to showcase the themes and preoccupations of the author.
What themes are these? Most evident is the time-honored theme of Appearance vs. Reality, and Oyeyemi has a field day with this. The young girls wonder why they at times cast no reflection in the mirror. But even what people see when they look right at each other is misleading in the extreme. Names are, of course, complete engines of misdirection. Oyeyemi seems to be screaming: DO NOT ASSUME. We can understand little about each other just by looking.
Theme No. 2: Those at the top of the social and economic ladder create the rules of the society and enforce certain codes of behavior, immoral, discriminatory, unfair as they may be. Others further down the ladder will emulate these values in their desire to improve their lot and move up in society. They will sometimes become more rigid and unbending than their social betters because they are terrified at not fitting in, at being discovered as lacking in social cred. As we’ve all observed, “No one is worse than a reformed ____” (alcoholic, dieter, religious fanatic, fill-in-the-blanks). The oppressed become the oppressors.
Theme No. 3: Society changes; the rules change; things get better for the underdog. Oyememi creates a vision through the eyes of her two young half-siblings of a world where values will change, where what was important in establishing social pecking order will change, where – dare I say It? – we will all get along. Most amazing is her message that all can be forgiven and that forgiveness can heal the most grievous scars.
For, despite events that would rock anyone’s world, the characters in the town accept everything and everyone. Explanations are muted or absent; there are no apologies for lying about essential things, kicking children out of their homes, infliction of physical and mental suffering. The town never reacts; the people hardly react. If anyone or anything is indicted, it would have to be Society. Any of the women characters could claim, “Society made me do it.”
There are no recriminations, only acceptance. Yes, this is a fairy tale, isn’t it?