Book Review: Helen Oyeyemi – Boy, Snow, Bird

Posted July 8, 2014 in Print

Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi

[Pan Macmillan]

Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel Boy, Snow, Bird can be described as: a cross-generational tale chronicling the intertwined lives of three women (Boy, Snow and Bird); a historical novel about race in 1950s America; a classic outsider narrative, tracing the journey of newcomer Boy towards acceptance in the small-town community of Flax Hill, Massachusetts; a meditation on female beauty and envy; a Gothic tale whose literary ancestry harks back to Poe. As in Oyeyemi’s previous works, mythology and folklore are a strong influence. However, here, the original fairytale is re-imagined so completely thatyou may get halfway through the book before realizing that what you are reading is a retelling of Snow White from the wicked stepmother’s perspective.

At the sentence level, Oyeyemi is a joy to read: her Snow is “poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it”. There are elements of Salinger here as well – precocious children who hang out in bookstores, a world populated by loveable smartasses, impossibly witty dialogue coming from the most improbable sources. Oyeyemi’s characters say things like “I’m the only teenager I know who reads Langston Hughes” and “Would you bear a deep wound in order to possess this ice cream completely? How deep a wound?” That no real person talks like this is precisely the charm.

The central question posed by the novel is, ultimately, one of identity: who can I be? The characters define themselves primarily in opposition to others; “It’s no big deal that I’m not like Snow”, her sister muses, “I can be another thing.” The author examines the intersection of gender and race and, especially, whether people accept or fight against the limitations imposed by these categorizations. Bird marvels at fairytale heroines’ submissiveness: “Cinderella just sweeping up all those ashes every day and never putting them into her stepmother’s food or anything—is that true?” The scariest thing for a person to be, in Oyeyemi’s vision, is not evil, but passive.

Words: Eliza Ariadna Kalfa

For more literary kicks, check out this month’s other book reviews: 

Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism

Steve Rasnic Tem’s Here With the Shadows

Laurie Moore’s Bark

Jason Johnson’s Sinker

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown and Other Stories

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