Mirror, mirror on the wall, how does Helen Oyeyemi repeatedly bewitch readers? Even staunch realists fall under the spell of her haunting, fantastically imaginative novels, which entwine elements of fairy tale, folklore, and ghost stories with thorny issues like racial prejudice, cultural dislocations, and maternal ambivalence. The Nigerian-born British writer’s new book, Boy, Snow, Bird, offers a twist on Snow White – with shades of Cinderella as well — but don’t expect Disney, or anything hewing as closely to the original as Donald Barthelme’s postmodern Snow White, Gregory Maguire’s Mirror Mirror, or Gail Carson Levine’s Fairest.
With her fifth novel, Oyeyemi — still not yet thirty! — has shattered Grimm’s looking glass, reflecting in its glittering shards an angelic, motherless girl named Snow, a jealous stepmother named Boy, and a mystified, questioning daughter and half sister named Bird — in a story about mothers and daughters, race and gender identity, and the many faces of beauty and evil.
As with Cathleen Schine’s recent novel, Fin & Lady, quirky names give Oyeyemi’s book its intriguing but deceptively elemental title. Nothing is quite as it first appears in Boy, Snow, Bird — which makes it an especially rich choice for book groups. Her last novel, Mr. Fox (2011), which also bore a misleadingly simple title, was an exuberant tour de force that explored the complexities of love and the ambiguous relationships between writers and their characters in an elaborate, ever-shifting labyrinth of intertwined, surreal narratives. The result, which encompassed the legend of Bluebeard and West African Yoruba folktales, evoked a mesmerizing Haruki Murakami–like fugue state.
While it’s neither as disorienting nor strenuously demanding as Mr. Fox nor as chilling as her Poe-inspired gothic third novel, White Is for Witching, there’s more in Boy, Snow, Bird than meets the eye. The novel opens on a note grimmer than Grimm, plunging us into Boy Novak’s dismal motherless childhood. Born in the 1930s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she grew up under the thumb of her viciously abusive father, a rodent exterminator (whom she refers to as “the rat catcher”) who has filled his basement with cages of blinded, starving rats. Boy, who narrates the first and last thirds of the novel, sums up: “So that’s Papa. Cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind, or he’ll thump the back of your head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around on the floor, stunned.” Pow!
Blonde-haired, fine-boned Boy explains that “No matter what anybody else said or did my father saw something revolting in me, and sooner or later he meant to make everybody else agree with him.” Frank Novak’s assaults escalate to the point where he’s threatening to disfigure his daughter, so we’re as relieved as Boy when she runs away at twenty, sending the narrative in a fresh direction. She catches the first bus out of town, which takes her to Flax Hill, Massachusetts. After struggling through some odd jobs, she lands in a local bookstore (a thriving enterprise in the early 1950s) run by a widowed Englishwoman who allows a trio of brainy “colored” kids to avoid the social torments of their newly integrated school by hanging around reading books off the shelves.
Boy quickly makes friends, including feisty Mia Cabrini, who is determined to buck marriage and motherhood and pursue a career in journalism that will expose bias toward blondes, prejudice against blacks, and “what someone goes through when they refuse to be a mother, or when they realize they just can’t do it.” Double-dating, Boy is paired off, inauspiciously at first, with a young widower named Arturo Whitman, a history professor turned jewelry craftsman. His beloved wife Julia, who “looked like a bashful Rapunzel,” died after giving birth to their enchanting daughter. Snow, at six, looks to Boy like “a medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at the utmost. She was like a girl in a Technicolor tapestry.”
Names offer one point of access and toehold for discussing craggy identity issues. Boy comments about hers: “I’ve always wanted to know whether Boy is the name my mother wanted for me, and if so, what kind of person the name was supposed to help me grow up into.” Eventually, we learn its genesis but still can’t help wondering why she never changes it. As for Snow: Boy learns that it was one of hundreds of monikers Julia had considered for her daughter, as if “trying to summon up a troop of fairy godmothers.” White-as-the-driven notwithstanding, clearly this woman hadn’t read her Grimm thoroughly. Finally, there’s Bird, Boy’s daughter, who narrates the beguiling middle section of the novel and offers plenty for book groups to peck at. For starters, she loves parroting others’ calls and is charmed by her older half sister’s gift, a white birdcage with a broken door, which promises “that its days as a jailhouse are done.”
Mirrors present another angle on the book. Oyeyemi’s characters are so confused about who they are that they literally can’t see their own reflections. “Who are you?” they ask each other repeatedly. While I prefer to let readers discover for themselves the novel’s surprising plot twists, (including a major one that is regrettably divulged in the book’s jacket copy), I do want to flag Oyeyemi’s fascinating focus on color bias among blacks, one of many forms of confused identity her story addresses. For me, this theme raised interesting parallels with anti-Semitism among Jews.
As in her earlier novels, Oyeyemi weaves together an enchanted mix of the natural and supernatural, the weird and the workaday. A few Britishisms and anachronisms — slimming, “on honeymoon,” Fluffernutter (a term not coined until 1960, although the peanut butter and marshmallow creme sandwich was indeed invented in New England during World War I) — occasionally threaten to break the book’s spell.
But it would take a lot more than anachronistic Fluffernutters to smear Oyeyemi’s psychologically acute, haunting portrait of the lasting damage of Boy’s woeful childhood. In this quintessential passage, Boy, still new to town (and freshly escaped from the rat catcher), is spooked by what seems to be a mirror image of herself while walking to work: “It was a windy morning, and the wind pushed me, and the road dragged me, and the tree branches flew forward and peeled back and broke away, and their scrawny trunks hugged each other. I glimpsed — or more became aware of — someone walking on the other side of the saplings.” The doppelgänger, dressed in a navy blue coat just like Boy’s, speaks with Boy’s voice:
“Hello? Hello? Is that you?”
We stopped walking.”I’m here, I’m here.”
Shards of her face emerged through brown bark and greenish shadows. Her left eye was aligned with mine; we raised our left hands at the same time, and hers was bloody. She said: “I don’t know what to do.”
Writing like that casts a spell, all right. For more books of magical wonder, try Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox and White Is for Witching, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (which, based on a Russian fairy tale, was a Pulitzer fiction finalist last year). And, for reasons that will become clear to you after you’ve read Oyeyemi’s dark new dazzler, you might also want to check out Philip Roth’s The Human Stain.