Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is an ingenious and subtle take on the fairy tale of Snow White, which is infused with the author’s characteristically vivid prose. There is Boy, a young and beautiful blonde who narrowly escapes her sadistic rat-catcher father by fleeing to a small Massachusetts town, in order to reinvent herself. There, she meets the handsome widower, Arturo, and his enigmatic child, Snow. Boy is fascinated with the girl—she is lovely and adored, but eventually, as Boy’s obsession with her grows, she embarks on the long road of resentment for the child.
After marrying Arturo and bearing a child of her own, it’s discovered that Arturo’s family is African-American; his parents passed as whites due to their light skin and desire to live amongst the whites. It’s the 60’s, now, and the idea of race runs rampant among their peers. Boy’s daughter, Bird, is clearly black, which threatens an imbalance in the family’s carefully constructed front.
Boy is rambunctious, highly intelligent, and a skilled mimic. While her mother has a strange fixation with her own reflection, Bird is plagued by not always showing up in mirrors. “For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they’re around mirrors.” More and more so, Bird begins to realize that things aren’t as they seem in her household. And when Snow returns from her exile—a banishment made by Boy, years ago—things become even more troubling.
Boy, Snow, Bird was such a delight to read. Oyeyemi’s writing always has a bit of the ‘spook’ to it, which is delicious and pleasantly disturbing for any reader who has an affinity for the surreal. Her prose is at once careful and wild—much like her female protagonists. I found myself re-reading passages in order to soak in her words better: “The first coffee of the morning is never, ever, ready quickly enough. You die before it’s ready and then your ghost pours the resurrection potion out of the moka pot.” It’s Oyeyemi’s playfulness that saves the story from being entirely macabre; however, it is a dark novel, and a complete 180 from the Disney-fied version that most are familiar with.
My own complaint was the very end of this strange, arresting tale. It ended too quickly, and the catalyst, for me, came far too near the end for comfort. I felt as if we had much more to go, that I was owed more explanations than I was given. However, Oyeyemi has her own agenda, and is never entirely understood, in the first place.
“I can’t explain, maybe it isn’t something that needs explaining, how the sight of a broken cage just puts you up on stilts. The promise that the cage will always be empty, that its days as a jailhouse are done.”
Reviewed by M.B. Sellers
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; First Edition edition (March 6, 2014)