I should stop reading the backs of books. It’s disappointing when stories don’t live up to their own pitch. Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird isn’t terrible, but it’s a long way from what the back cover suggests. Here it is, so we’re all on the same page:
In this extraordinary new novel, Helen Oyeyemi’s, the prize-winning author of Mr. Fox, brilliantly recasts the “Snow White” fairy tale as a story of family secrets, race, beauty, and vanity.
In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries Arturo Whitman, a local widower, and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Individually and together, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
I love reimagined fairy tales! This genre involves sly re-characterizations and nods to the classics. Many fairy tales are rule-based (doors you can’t open, food you can’t eat) and begin when the key rule is broken. The inevitable consequences and solutions leave space for anything to happen. “Snow White,” with its required overdose of vanity and jealousy leading to the downfall of the wicked queen, is fertile ground for creativity.
Boy, Snow, Bird hits its opening mark:
Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them and believed them to be trustworthy. (3)
Reflections start acting up and misbehaving, but they can’t make a dent on the plot which plods forward predictably, skirting any interesting or fantastic diversions. The first section follows Boy’s lackluster courtship with Arturo Whitman and culminates in her evil-stepmother moment—which goes nowhere. The next section resumes more than a decade later and is written from the POV of a different character. Curiously, no one is overly upset or surprised by Boy’s actions; this robs them of the weight and controversy they might have held.
Given the conversations between characters, Boy, Snow, Bird seems built to talk about race. It’s possible that Adichie’s layered and complex Americanah (which I read right before BSB) spoiled me on this front, but the similar conversation attempted in Boy, Snow, Bird stalls. Even with so many set pieces built around mirrors and a family passing as white, the commentary on appearance and race is hard to make out. There’s plenty of metaphor, but Oyeyemi’s characters act so inconsistently that it’s difficult to tease out the deeper meaning they’re meant to express. I struggled to remember the names of the supporting cast. I initially chalked this up to Boy’s inability to care about the people around her, but the sloppy characterizations continued into the sections narrated by more lively people. Even the attempted love triangle is weird. Boy is as bored by the man she “loves” as the man she married.
For quite some time, I was bent on justifying the story’s flatness. I thought it had to be indicative of [meaningful insight]. But while the seeds of observation are there, they’re underused and ill-tended. Why was I working so hard to find a deeper meaning in this book?
Boy, Snow, Bird‘s investment in metaphors and on-the-nose symbolism cries out for analysis. So many statements are fraught with meaning while simultaneously contributing nothing to the plot. This book is beautifully written in places and I didn’t want to dismiss it as flat just because the superficial story was a flop. I wanted to assume it was coming together on a deeper level, even as I watched its inability to pay off the promises made by the back cover and early pages. Better characters (and more memorable characters) would have gone a long way to making the book cohesive and interesting.
Overall: 2.5 Points awarded for cleverly written passages, but there’s not enough energy here to sustain an entire novel. Big issues (race and gender) are treated superficially though symbolism; circumstances within the novel make it seem as though this discussion was intended to be deep and reflective.
Translation: Skim it? Maybe there’s a reason everyone recommends Mr. Fox and not Boy, Snow, Bird…go try that one instead.