‘It’s a stonker’ – Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

boy snow birdBoy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel. The title encompasses the slightly bizarre names of the book’s three main characters, all of whom form part of a complicated and dysfunctional family that would be difficult to fully describe in just a few sentences. The novel begins with Boy, a young girl living with her abusive father, known only as the rat catcher. At twenty, Boy decides to run away from her New York home and make a new life in a sleepy, racially segregated town called Flax Hill. Here, she meets Arturo Whitman, and, more importantly, his stunningly beautiful and much adored daughter, Snow. With the novel being billed as a retelling of Snow White, it is at first difficult to see how Boy is going to fit into the wicked stepmother role. She takes to Snow, showing her levels of affection that she previously seemed incapable of. But when Boy has her own daughter, Bird, we see a change that will tear the family apart.

Throughout the early parts of the novel, much is made of Boy’s beauty. The same is true of Snow. And while it may not always be obvious to a first time reader, much of this beauty is linked to their pale skin, their fair hair, their ‘whiteness.’ When Bird is born black, and the truth of the Whitman’s attempts to pass as white become clear, Boy has to make a choice. Does she allow the sisters to be brought up together, and live with the constant comparisons those around her begin to make, or does she separate them, and give Bird the chance to form her own life, away from the shadow of her sister?

The above synopsis barely begins to scratch the surface of this novel, though. In fact, it is a hugely complex novel that softens the complexity of its subjects with wonderful prose and effortless storytelling. Many themes take centre stage here. Be it race, family, sexuality, history, vanity, beauty, jealousy, or tradition, each theme is equally important, and each is handled intelligently. Oyeyemi approaches all of these well-worn themes with levels of originality that are rare in literature, bringing her ideas to life in ways that it’s hard to imagine any other author doing. What the reader experiences is a weighty, important novel, often pitched as a simple coming-of-age family drama. And all of that is presented with wit, imagination, and a sense of responsibility to her subject.

Any Cop?: Oyeyemi has had a startling career so far, releasing five critically acclaimed works before the age of thirty. After being named as one of the Granta Best of British last year, though, this latest novel is likely to receive more attention than any of her previous four. Luckily for her, it’s a stonker. A novel without comparison. A work that sums up everything that put her on Granta’s list in the first place.

 

Fran Slater


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