Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi


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 a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

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. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold. — [X]

Boy, Snow, Bird is the first book I’ve read by Helen Oyeyemi and having read it, I’m certain it won’t be the last. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Oyeyemi had me hooked from page one. No, not the opening line about mirrors (that is well-loved for a reason: it is a great first line), but the epigraph:

Wake, girl.

Your head is becoming the pillow.

Eleanor Ross Taylor

Once you’ve finished the book, you flip back to the beginning and sigh at how perfect the epigraph is for Boy, Snow, Bird. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know the rest of the poem:

And then you sigh again because the book, named after three of the female characters, is all about waking up, all about mirrors that breathe, about stories that we learn and teach and (often) make-up. It is about people and how neither mirrors nor stories can ever truly encompass their beauty and humanity.

Wake, girl.

The book is split into three parts. The first and last parts focus on Boy. Boy Novak, who wakes up and realizes that she will never be able to live freely under the roof of her father, the Rat Catcher, runs away to a small town. Boy Novak, who is soon to become Boy Whitman, wakes up suddenly to the realization that she is now a stepmother. Boy Whitman, who gives birth to a “colored” child and wakes up to the tangled mess of racism, sexism, and self-loathing, embraces her role as not just a stepmother but a wicked stepmother and sends her white-passing stepdaughter Snow away.

On the surface, hers is the story of the wicked queen, the one that exiles Snow White. But then you read on, and as you read, you find her difficult to dislike. Boy is someone who struggles to love. She struggles to love her husband, her stepdaughter, and then her own daughter. But despite everything, she tries to do right by Bird, the girl who will always be haunted by her sister’s beauty:

Bird adored Snow; everybody adored Snow and her daintiness … When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl–we don’t see a colored girl standing there. The joke’s on us. Olivia* just laps up the reactions Snow gets: From this I can only make inferences about Olivia’s childhood and begin to measure the difference between being seen as colored and being seen as Snow. What can I do for my daughter? — Page 139.

*the grandmother

The mirror is waiting to hold you.

The most surprising part of the book (and the part I loved the most) was reading Bird’s narrative. She is a thirteen year old girl who wants to grow up to be a journalist, writes often, and observes always. Through Bird, we see a heartbreakingly honest look at what happens when we equate whiteness to beauty and beauty to truth:

Mom was the only one who immediately saw that I’d dressed up as Alice in Wonderland for fancy-dress day at school. The costume made it glaringly obvious–the white ankle socks, the blue dress with the blue and white apron over it–it’s in all the picture books. But when I came downstairs, Dad said: “What a pretty little housekeeper!” — Page 161.

We also see Bird, with all the cleverness of a young mind, fight the system of racism in ways only she can. Sometimes this involves standing by her Asian crush when he is called slurs, sometimes it involves banding with other girls of colour, sometimes it means confronting her mother, and yes, sometimes, it means getting to know the sister who may or may not be blessed:

I had a moment of hating [Snow], or at least understanding why Mom did … Does [Snow] know that she does this to people? Dumb question. This is something we do to her. — Page 266.

You’re too late too early.

The last part of the book has a lot packed into it. There are confrontations that should have happened ages ago, and there are confrontations that happen before anyone was truly ready for them. Arguably, nothing is resolved at the end of the book. Arguably, nothing like racism ever is. This last part is heavy on the realism part of the magic realism, because no, there is no such thing as closure. Just people, and reflective glass, and time.

There is one major cliché that is stops Boy, Snow, Bird from being Absolutely Perfect and I outline my thoughts on that under the Read More line because, you know, MAJOR SPOILERS. Apart from this, however, the book is downright fantastic. Oyeyemi draws expertly from various fairytales and classics and weaves them into H/histories that we learn and those that we can’t/won’t unlearn, and the result is this marvellous book that wakes us up. Technically, every book is supposed to be a mirror or a window, but very few portals are as beautifully crafted as this one. By the end of Oyeyemi’s beauty of a book, we see how characters transcend their lives on the page and become us, we look down at their faces and see our own, at their flaws and see our own. Boy, Snow, Bird is one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. I’d recommend it for older teens and young adults. If you like fairytales and if Marissa Meyer’s Fairest left you wanting more: come and get it.

Officially, this is the end of the review. But, I had to share my thoughts on some huge spoilers, so if spoilers don’t phase you or if you’ve already read the book, READ ON!

So, the ending of the book reveals that the reason that Boy Novak never had a mother is because her father, Frank the Rat Catcher, was born a woman and Boy’s biological mother. I said that the book has one major cliché and for me, this is it. I have read many reviews that feel Oyeyemi’s writing here is transphobic, and how it is unfortunate that the one trans character’s evolution is fuelled by trauma, and how the only character that is truly Evil is the trans character. Things get even more complicated when Boy decides that she wants to meet her parent, and uses the wrong pronoun indicating that she want a mother, not her abusive father. I don’t agree that this indicates transphobia in part of the writer. It does, however, mean that a) Oyeyemi could have executed this better and b) yes, the characters are not the most accepting. I (mostly) agree with this reviewer here on the subject.

Thing is, 98% of the book talks about passing in terms of race and Boy learns to reject this practice. She sees it as lying and believes that people need to love you for what you really are. You can see how this race-defined view on passing doesn’t translate in terms of gender, especially when the “what you really are” is defined by strict gender binaries. (Also, doesn’t take a genius to figure out that her visit to Frank, the point at which the novel ends, won’t go over well.) Basically, this book has characters who are stumbling along in search of truth and what they see as right/wrong doesn’t always mean we see it as right/wrong. Boy, Snow, and Bird are by no means perfect, honourable characters and by no means owe to the readers to be immediately accepting of Frank’s identity. All I wish is that it wasn’t a rushed exposition at the end of the novel; I’m kinda wishing for a sequel. Buuuut, I hear “adult” literature isn’t into that, so *shrug* … them’s the brakes. So, what do you guys think?

11 responses to “Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

  1. I’ve never heard of this book before, but your review has made me very intrigued. I definitely want to read this

  2. I really loved this book too – I read it while on holiday and it completely entranced me. I have never read anything like it. It is a shame that the ‘Evil’ in the novel is trans and therefore the book can be interpreted as transphobic – but before I read this review I didn’t see it this way. To me, the true evil character was the man that raped Frank, turning him into a villain.

    • Agreed. I think Frank’s “evilness” and his identity as a trans man are two separate things that aren’t dependent on each other. That much is made amply clear in the ending.

  3. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: Retell This! | The Book Wars·

  4. I think of it this way: Rat Catcher isn’t “trans”, she is a person trying to “pass”. She has all the characteristics praised in men – intelligence, ambition, etc. But she is reduced and enslaved by her gender no less than the Whitmans are by their race. What makes her “evil” is the twisting of identity, the need to hide, the fear and the oppression.

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