I first encountered Helen Oyeyemi’s writing when she was included in Granta’s 2013 Best of Young British Novelists. There was an extract of Boy, Snow, Bird in the book, and I liked Oyeyemi’s writing style and enjoyed what I read of her latest novel.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a well-written, intricate novel that deals with varied and difficult subjects, yet I have mixed feelings about the book. The novel starts with 20 year old Boy who lives with her cruel, abusive father. She dreams of escaping, and one day she does so, taking a bus to its furthest destination – Flax Hill, in Massachusetts. Once there she meets, and later marries, Arturo Whitman, becoming a mother to his daughter, Snow. The book explores the relationship between Boy, Snow, and Boy’s own daughter Bird. There’s not much more I can say without spoiling the book, but I think that it’s one of those novels that benefits from knowing little about the plot before reading.
The book has been described as a modern retelling of Snow White, which I’m not entirely convinced by, but there is a definite fairytale quality to the novel. While the book is set in the 1950’s it didn’t feel rooted to a particular time period and felt almost timeless, adding to its fairytale-like quality. The characters also add to this atmosphere – there’s Boy’s cruel father, and Boy’s stepdaughter Snow who is an intriguing and mysterious character. She has an eerie effect on the novel, and on those around her, and it’s fascinating to watch. It is perhaps because of this fairytale-like quality that some of the characters feel a little like sketches – the female characters seem more fully formed than the male ones – yet, the characters’ mysteriousness adds to the overall feel of the novel.
Boy, Snow, Bird tackles many subjects and themes throughout. It’s about identity and secret identity – the difference between one self and the other – gender and womanhood, race, mothers and daughters, and mirrors and how we perceive ourselves. It’s a thought provoking read, and one I’m continuing to think about even though I’ve since moved on to other books, partly because I’m not sure if I still fully understand what it all means.
This brings me to a revelation that comes right at the end of the book. While I won’t say what this is, it completely threw me and I couldn’t see how it fitted with the story that had come before. Instead of the plot concluding and drawing to a close, it morphed into something else entirely. Perhaps it fits thematically, but it felt wrong for the book – it felt tacked on, a way to end the story. I wanted this scene to be placed further back in the story so it could be explored more, because there’s plenty left to be said. Sadly, the ending completely changed the book for me and my feelings about it unfortunately overshadow the rest of the novel.
Oyeyemi has a lovely writing style, and there are wonderful descriptions and poignant phrases throughout the book. I’d be interested in reading some of her earlier novels (Boy, Snow, Bird is her fifth) because, while I enjoyed this novel, it slightly fell short of how good I think it could have been and the ending in particular didn’t sit quite right with me.
Have you read Boy, Snow, Bird? What did you think? Have you read any other of Helen Oyeyemi’s novels that you could recommend?