Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi

Back in January, I wrote about taking part in #TBR20, focusing on reading books by women of colour. Since then I’ve broken the book buying ban and my reviewing’s slowed considerably. However, I’ve still been reading the books I selected and I’ve decided it’s about time I got my reviews of them up. Part of the decision to post the reviews now is due to #diverseauthorday which is happening on Thursday (you can read more about that here). As part of my celebration three of the four reviews I post this week will be of books by women of colour. (Tomorrow I have YA author Sheena Wilkinson on the blog in the lead-up to the UKYA Extravaganza next month.)

Suppose you’re born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-something. Suppose your father’s a rat-catcher. (Your absent mother is never discussed, to the extent that you nurse a theory that you’re a case of spontaneous generation.)

A girl named Boy is the narrator of Boy, Snow, Bird. Her father’s violent but she says she thinks she could kill someone if she had to – either him or herself, ‘whichever option proved most practical’. However, the repeated beatings and the knowledge that going to college wouldn’t be something her rat-catcher father would respond to positively lead Boy to run away. She buys a ticket to Flax Hill, the furthest destination for the bus, and takes a room in a run down boarding house.

Struggling to find work because she’s from Manhattan, has an unusual name and doesn’t have any skills, Boy spends her time going on double dates with Veronica Webster who lives on the floor below. It’s on one of these double dates that Boy meets Arturo Whitman and as Veronica continues to date Whitman’s friend and business partner, Ted, Boy dates Whitman. After a few dates he reveals he has a six-year-old daughter called Snow. Several dates later, Boy meets her when she wanders past the Whitman’s house:

I couldn’t see her face properly – it was obscured by clouds of dark hair with big red flowers plaited into them…Her voice sounded exactly the way I’d thought it would sound. For some reason that scared me, so I didn’t stop at the gate to greet her even though I heard her saying “Hi” in a startled way. I just said “Hi, Snow” as if we’d met before, when of course we hadn’t, and I kept going, kept my gaze fixed on the road ahead of me. “Scared” doesn’t even really describe it. I almost crossed myself. It felt like the evil eye had fallen upon us both.

I don’t want to write too much else about the plot for fear of spoilers, other than to say that the Bird of the title is Boy and Arturo’s daughter and her birth leads to some key issues for their family.

Boy Snow Bird uses elements of fairytales – mirrors, absent mothers, stepmothers who may or may not be wicked, children who are banished – but Oyeyemi does more than simply rewrite Snow White, she uses the story to look at family relationships and, most importantly, ideas around passing (in several senses of the word).

Oyeyemi writes beautifully:

I kissed the glass with my fists against it, kissed wantonly until I felt an ache in my breasts and a throbbing between my legs. There was a taste of blood where my mouth met my mouth, as if our lips were blades.

She also creates an engaging story with two big, really quite shocking, twists. The first of these is very clever and links to prevalent ideas of the time. The second is interesting but I wasn’t completely convinced by it. Not because it was implausible – it was certainly believable – but because I didn’t feel as though it had been sufficiently set-up earlier in the novel. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of a well-written, interesting novel though and I’ll certainly be reading more of Oyeyemi’s work.

19 thoughts on “Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi

  1. I’m so glad someone’s reviewed this. I read it back in January and just didn’t know what to make of it at all–it felt uneven, but it also felt weirdly powerful. Her previous novel that I’d read, The Icarus Girl, was incredible, from what I remember, and felt more organic somehow. Still not sure how I feel about Boy, Snow, Bird, although every cover I’ve seen is gorgeous!

    • I think it would benefit from multiple readings. I haven’t even really begun to unravel all the things about mirrors and how we see ourselves. Looking forward to The Icarus Girl although I’m told it’s quite frightening.

      • Yes–disturbing would be the word I’d use. I was only about fifteen when I read it and I think a lot of it went over my head, but I remember being upskittled by the whole experience.

  2. Pingback: Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi | fleurdor

  3. Pingback: Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi | fleurdor

  4. As soon as I got to a girl named Boy & ‘Your absent mother is never discussed, to the extent that you nurse a theory that you’re a case of spontaneous generation’ I was instantly hooked! Great review!

  5. Pingback: Mãn – Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman) | The Writes of Woman

  6. Pingback: Mãn – Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman) | The Writes of Woman

  7. I seem to be hearing a lot of praise for Oyeyemi from people whose opinions I respect (yourself, of course, included). Looks like I’ll have to add her to my wish list!

  8. I seem to be hearing a lot of praise for Oyeyemi from people whose opinions I respect (yourself, of course, included). Looks like I’ll have to add her to my wish list!

  9. Pingback: Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (3/5) | Taking on a World of Words

  10. Pingback: Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (3/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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