Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyememi is a retelling of the classic fairytale Snow White. Set in the 1950s and 1960s, the novel tells a strange tale of beauty, envy, race, and genetics from the perspective of the main character, Boy, and later her daughter, Bird.
Boy Novak is a white young woman from New York who runs away from her abusive father to a random town in Massachusetts. Although she struggles at first to fit in the predominantly white artisan community owing to her lack in artistic talents, Boy eventually finds friendship and love in the town and starts her new life. After a rough start, Boy eventually marries Arturo Whitman, a local jeweller and widower with a beautiful six-year-old daughter named Snow. Shortly after her marriage to Arturo, Boy becomes pregnant and gets the shock of her life when she gives birth to their daughter, whom she named Bird. Unbeknownst to Boy and many other members of the community, Arturo and his family (and his first wife’s family) come from a long line of light-skinned African Americans who engaged in selective breeding to maintain their light complexion and pass themselves off as white. However, genetics is a tricky and unpredictable thing, and to Boy’s surprise, she gives birth to a beautiful black baby girl.
Boy learns of Arturo’s family secrets shortly after the birth of Bird, and decides to send Snow away to live with Arturo’s estranged sister in Mississippi for the benefit of her daughter Bird.
Divided into three sections, the first half of the book is told from the perspective of Boy Novak, starting from her life in New York to the birth of Bird. The second half of the book is mainly told from the perspective of 13-year-old Bird, who had grown up into an impressionable, intelligent, and inquisitive young girl. Bird mostly describes her school life, her best friend Louis Chen, her confused impression of her mother, her knowledge of Snow, and the fact that she sometimes does not show up in mirrors. The second half of the book also shows correspondences between Bird and Snow (who is now 21 years old and still living in Mississippi) and how they get to know each other as sisters.
I have issues with this novel. First, being described as a retelling of Snow White is not exactly accurate. Besides being a story of a woman who banishes her fair and beautiful stepdaughter to Mississippi and a few undeveloped symbolisms with mirrors between the three main characters, there isn’t much comparison between the two stories. However, that’s the least of my complaints about this story.
The first two parts of this story focus on the complex concept of race and identity, which has the power to ruin or benefit individuals and entire families. However, I feel that the story loses its footing toward the final part of the book, which is told from the perspective of Boy (I was expecting the third part to be told from the perspective of Snow but oh well…). The third part focuses on a particularly awkward Thanksgiving dinner at the Whitmans (with Snow and her family from Mississippi), the strange reconciliation between Boy and Snow, and the sudden introduction of sexuality and psychology in the last 20 pages. However, strange as this unexpected and unnecessary twist it, Boy’s solution to the new “problem” is even more strange and confusing.
I was enjoying this novel up to the second part despite not knowing where Bird’s narrative was going. However, I was completely thrown off by the sudden twist at the end, which ruined the entire book for me. Although sexuality is an important part of identity, this theme was absent for a large part of the book and thus seemed out of place, especially in the final few pages.
Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) – Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead Books; 316 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 2/5