Staff Review: Boy, Snow, Bird

9781594631399Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead Books

$27.95

Available March 2014

I loved Mr. Fox, so I was really excited about Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird.  I was anticipating a loose retelling of the Snow White fable, similar to Mr. Fox and the story of Bluebeard. The wicked stepmother is present here, as is Snow White, but this novel goes beyond the familiar elements. Boy, Snow, Bird is about surfaces, what they reflect, and what lies beneath. Boy is Boy Novak, actually a girl, who escapes an abusive father, and marries a widower with a beautiful daughter, Snow. His family seems to be held in thrall to Snow’s beauty, who is so pale, with dark hair, just like in the fairy tale.

When Boy gives birth to Bird, she realizes that her husband’s family is black, passing for white.  Bird shatters this carefully guarded secret, because she looks like what she is: a mixed race child. Boy grows to hate the sight of Snow and sends her away to live with her black relatives. Boy worries about how difficult life will be for Bird. People make assumptions based on what things look like on the surface, and people have assumed that Snow is white, and therefore her beauty does not get questioned, because “they don’t see a colored girl standing there”.  Bird has one peculiarity – sometimes she cannot see herself in mirrors. What do other people really see when they look at her? Is she invisible to white people because she is not white? What do we really see when we look at another person? How much of what we see is real and how much is based on our own prejudices and assumptions? This is brilliantly illustrated in a heartbreaking scene when Bird dresses up as Alice in Wonderland in “white ankle socks, black Mary Janes, the fat ribbon tied in a bow around (my) head, the blue dress with the blue and white apron over it”,  for a fancy-dress day at school. Boy sees her as Alice, but her father sees her as a housekeeper. Bird’s classmates make the same assumption as her father, seeing her as either as housekeeper or a washerwoman.

The only jarring thing about this novel, to my mind at least, because it felt tacked on, is the revelation near the end that Boy’s abusive father is actually her mother, who has been passing as a man. With this revelation, however, Boy takes Snow and Bird to go find her father/mother and find some sort of resolution.

At the end of this wonderful book, I went back to think about the title: Boy, Snow, Bird. None of these names reflect the true person. Boy is not really a boy, Snow is not really white, and Bird is not really a bird. And yet in the end, it is not our names, or what is on the surface, that determines our true selves.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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