4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 9 April 2014
The story begins in the postwar years on Manhattan. Girl with a strange name Boy Novak lives with her father in a small house. Boy does not know anything about her mother, and her father works as a rat catcher. The basement floor of Novak’s house is laden with cages with rats that Boy’s father uses for his work.
Boy has a passion for words, has a strange attraction to mirrors, has average grades in school, all due to the fact that she grew up in a family of lone rat catcher. Boy’s father often beat her, sometimes scares her with rats.
«I did fine at school. I'm talking about the way boys reacted to me, actually, since some form of perversity caused me to spend most lessons pretending to absorb much less information than I actually did. Every now and then a teacher got suspicious about a paper I'd turned in and would keep me after school for questioning. "Has someone been. . . helping you? "I just shook my head and shuffled my chair sideways, avoiding the glare of the desk lamp the teacher invariably tried to shine into my eyes. Something about a girl like me writing an A-grade paper turns teachers into cops.»
Boy meets a young man named Charlie, but their relationships don’t work out. Unable to withstand the regular beating of her father, Boy one day gathers a few of her belongings, steals $12 from her father and runs to the bus depot, buying a ticket to a small town Flax Hill.
Helen Oyeyemi has the ability to write vigorously. The book begins as a modern fairy tale that one girl can tell another. Dates are blurred, but there are a rat catcher, abusive father, running away from home and a small town of shadow nature. The beginning already makes guess what is in front of us, realism or magic realism?
Every sentence in this book radiates energy, and sometimes sentences themselves bump into each other, the idea might pause for a paragraph, but reappear in another paragraph. Prose here really is alive, not stereotype for the words, 70 percent of modern American literature uses. It makes me happy, you’re feeling originality, otherness.
But the first half of the book has a problem not with the style, but with the narrative, with the writer’s ability to clearly tell the story. There is just not enough clarity. Narrative wobbles and it is not clear whether the author knows where she is going, or just writes in the hope that the story itself will lead somewhere. The key point of the first chapter emerges as an ax from the pond - that is, all of a sudden, without any hints from the text. One expects from the writer who writes unique prose a certain subtlety.
But the second part is written more smoothly, without wiggle of the first, and the second part offers very thinly scattered clues, trivia, internal techniques that later get together and make the overall picture. Particularly impressive is the fact that the first and second parts of the novel are completely different, as it should be when there is a narrator change. Despite the existence of racial themes, it has no effect on the style: the entire novel is written in literary English, without its "black" version. The characters discuss the color of the skin here, but it's just one of the themes of the novel. Racial theme here is one of the components of the theme of the family.
The finale of Boy, Snow, Bird is immaculate, shocking, amazing, as however you think for something unexpected, you still will be surprised. Despite the flawed beginning for such a finale you can forgive this book a lot. Overall imperfection of this book says only that great books are rarely smooth and perfect.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Helen Oyeyemi is often described as one of the most talented writers of her generation, no small praise considering the amount of wonderful talent there is around today. She is also praised for her originality and inventiveness, qualities which she displays dazzlingly in novels like Mr Fox.
Oddly, this novel has few of those qualities. It goes over very old ground indeed -- racial issues in the U.S. in the 1950s (decades before Helen Oyeyemi was born) acted out through the archetypal figures in the Snow White fable. There is so much in the novel that is already known to the reader, and which has already been covered in countless works of fiction and non-fiction, that the reader of Boy, Snow, Bird has few surprises in store. The lack of suspense made getting through this quite long and dense novel more and more of a chore, until I was impatient for it to end.
Nor is the writing in any way original or inventive. It has been deliberately flattened out and dumbed down to preserve the voice of the narrator, who comes across from the start as unemotional -- and in the last pages, when the "shocking" truth is revealed, as almost inconceivably detached. Cold, snow and alienation pervade this novel.
To my mind, the first third of the novel is the best and most engaging section, centering on the character of Boy, a character of Helen Oyeyemi's own age. She is at her best writing about what she knows. Essays into the minds and lives of older characters are less successful. But as I've said elsewhere, I am a great admirer of Oyeyemi, and I am certain that time and experience will turn her into the great novelist she was born to be.
Do I recommend this book to readers? Yes, of course. It's worth reading. But the reactions of other readers show that some were disappointed, as I was. I started with very high expectations, as they did. So if you do buy and start reading this novel, perhaps bear that in mind!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I started off being not sure about this book. From the start I found it a beautifully written, magical book with a very dark Angela Carteresque slant towards fairytale motifs and poeticism that I found utterly engaging to read. But I wasn't sure if it was too fairy-taley for me.
But the more pages I turned, the more I appreciated the brilliance of the writing. Helen Oyeyemi's prose reminds me very much of Sylvia Plath's in the bell jar. It's sharp, lively, sometimes scathing, sometimes affectionate, always brilliant. Some commentators have said they found it lacked heart; not me. I loved the sparseness of the writing.
The Boy, Snow, Bird of the title are a young woman who flees her brutal ratcatcher father, a truly horrible character, her stepdaughter and her daughter. Very slowly themes begin to emerge; friendship, love, the problems of America during the 1930s and 40s.
I'd heard of Helen Oyeyemi before but this is the first book of hers that I'd read. I was not disappointed.
It won't appeal to everyone, but for the pleasure of immersing yourself in something beautiful, unusual and magical, this book is worth a read. I absolutely loved it.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Boy has fled her abusive rat-catcher father and is trying to make a life for herself in a new town. However, when she meets Arturo, she is simultaneously repelled by, and drawn to, his small daughter, Snow, who seems to be part of Boy's destiny in a way she does not yet understand. When Boy has her own daughter, Bird, and realises the secret that this small family is hiding, she banishes Snow but clings on to Bird as she tries to protect herself and her daughter. Will these fragmented sisters ever be able to reconnect?
I found this novel, the first by Oyeyemi I've read for a long time (I tried The Icarus Girl as a teenager but remember little about it) to be tricksy to read and to review. I loved Boy's voice, and the fairy-tale linkages that Oyeyemi picks up upon throughout the first section, even though these references could occasionally become a little too obvious. The novel is set in post-WWII America, but I only remembered this fact half of the time; the strongest scenes in the novel are those with the most sense of history, I think, such as when Boy meets some black teenagers in a bookshop and reflects upon race, one of the major hidden themes of this novel. At other times, it felt as if Oyeyemi was using history as a backdrop for the very postmodern story she wanted to tell, which frustrated me.
The second section of the novel, narrated by Bird, was where it began to lose my attention. I found it difficult to relate to the teenaged Bird as a character - she falls foul of a number of adolescent cliches, being precocious, observant and underestimated by the adults around her. In contrast to Boy, I felt that her voice was not as distinctive, and this became especially obvious when she started to correspond with Snow. Although Snow's letters are superficially different from Bird's, underneath they feel like the same character in different situations, and this didn't enable me to connect with either of them. The ending of Boy, Snow, Bird is extremely abrupt, and both practically and psychologically unbelievable; I think it's one of the most controversial choices Oyeyemi makes in the novel and it didn't work for me at all.
Because I felt this novel was deeply flawed, I've only given it three stars, but there were some excellent passages and scenes within it, and I'm now keen to try something else by Oyeyemi to see if her earlier work is better-balanced; White Is For Witching, in particular, looks tempting.
Stories based on old fairy tales are fashionable at the moment, but describing this as a 'Snow White retelling' is a bit of red herring. If that is putting you off reading this, don't let it. There is very little resemblance to the traditional story. The only similarities are that there is a character called 'Snow' who has the classic Snow White looks, she has a stepmother, and the stepmother sends her away. Mirrors are frequently referenced in the text. And that's it.
The story is set in the USA in the 1950s and 60s, and is narrated in the first person by two of the characters. The principal theme is identity; how much we choose our own and how much nature decides for us, and whether we can (or should) try to escape our true natures. But that makes it sound a lot more worthy and dull than it is - it's actually and engagingly told and often quite gripping story. The writing is very good, easy to read and entertaining with a nice turn of phrase. The characters are interesting and the plot carries things along with a good pace. It's an original idea and a bit different, without being weird.
I found the ending a bit frustrating as I'd have liked to know more and it did stop on something of a cliffhanger. I also found the middle section, narrated by a thirteen year old character, to be a bit implausible in terms of that character's voice - it's difficult to write convincingly as a child and I'm not sure Oyeyemi pulled it off quite right here. But other than that it was a well structured and enjoyable read which I always looked forward to picking up the next chapter of.
This book would appeal to a wide range of readers as it is original and well written. It has enough character development and enough plot to please readers who like plot-driven and those who prefer character-driven stories. It's easy to read but intelligent and makes you think, and it's not predictable, so it's a great book if you read a lot and like to find things that are a bit different. I'd recommend it and would definitely read more of this author's books.
Boy Snow Bird contains elements which I often find problematic. It touches in places on magical realism. It has a very open, inconclusive end. Yet it is a highly endearing book which I really liked. I think it is the sheer playfulness of the writing which won me over.
On the surface it is the story of Boy Novak who, early in the novel, escapes from New York, and her violent rat catcher father. She arrives in the slightly mystical village of Flax Hill which "misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner" and where everyone seems to Boy to be a skilled specialist. Author Oyeyemi initially gives us a picture of the life of an itinerant worker in 50s America as Boy lives in a lodging house of young women, flitting from job to job. While on a double date she meets, and is initially antagonistic towards academic turned jeweller, Arturo Whitman.
Boy, in common with everyone in Flax Hill is captivated by the widowed Arturo's daughter, Snow, but the relationship changes when Boy gives birth to Snow's half sister, Bird.
That brief account gives a window onto the second level of the book. This is novel which plays with fairy tale themes, although not in their conventional structures. Boy escapes from the Pied Piper to become stepmother to Snow Whitman, but desperately tries to be good. The mirror is a constant image throughout, and references to other tales, not least Cinderella, abound. There is even a much more modern reflection of the work of Iain Banks. Oyeyemi uses these fairy tale ideas to produce a work which is not so much magical realism as exploring how we use magical imagery to explain the everyday, as in the quote above where the simple act of getting to know a new town is described in fantastical terms. Interestingly the magic is also balanced by a parallel thread of investigative journalism which runs throughout.
The third layer of the book is about issues of race and gender and how they are hidden and distorted by society and how they in their turn hide and distort. To say more would be to introduce spoilers.
This is also a story of family relationships, and it is those relationships which tie all of the other themes of the book together. The third act of the book consists primarily of a series of letters through which the half sisters create a relationship which they were denied by events at the time of Boy's birth, and which are in terms magical, and investigative. There is also the wonderfully labyrinthine Whitman family whose complex relationships are driven by the interplay of race and the expectations of society.
Boy Snow Bird struck me as a novel which would warrant a second reading as I'm sure there were things going on in it which I missed. For example the name of Bird's husband, and the cover of the hardback edition are both strong plot indicators.
If have a significant criticism it is the story peters out. There is the second of two major twists, but the the consequences are left hanging.
Overall,though, there is enough intelligence and invention here to overcome my reservations.
Boy Novak is the daughter of an abusive rat catcher, a man she longs to escape. One day, finally, she goes; she gets on a bus and finds herself somewhere new. In her new home, Boy meets a few friends and Arturo Whitman, father of a beautiful little girl called Snow. Boy and Arturo marry and only when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, does she discover that Arturo's family has a secret - one that has a great deal of resonance in 1950's America.
This book is somewhat obviously modeled on Snow White, but twists and turns that fairy tale to become almost entirely different, with the evil stepmother actively trying her best not to be an evil stepmother. It struck me as a novel primarily about how people appear and how a little change can make a lot of difference. There are several characters in this book whose appearances don't match the way their "true" selves would be perceived in society, which is both good and bad for them. It's about prejudice and how we apply it based on something so shallow which actually resonates a lot with current events. And that's all I'll say about that, to avoid overtly spoiling a crucial plot point.
Though it's a twisty book with a lot of surprises and a mystical feel, I actually didn't enjoy Boy, Snow, Bird very much. I often struggle with books where I don't connect to or empathise with any of the characters and this was the case here. The three title women are the only characters who are fleshed out to any degree, with the rat catcher, Arturo, Boy's first love, and Arturo's family mostly glossed over. The letters between Bird and Snow towards the second half of the book were easily my favorite part; two sisters getting to know each other again, understanding how they are alike and how they are different. But overall I just found myself feeling sort of underwhelmed. I felt like I'd seen a lot of other bloggers heap praise on Oyeyemi's works and I just felt cold towards this, never really involved or that interested in what was happening to the characters or why. It's been a few days since I finished it and I already feel like it's left my consciousness, rather than causing me to dwell on some of the powerful messages it contained.
A woman called Boy. A white girl called Snow. A black girl called Bird. A rat catcher. A stepmother. Mirrors that do not always reflect true....
Prepare for a whole range of fairy tale allusions.
Clearly many fellow reviewers have been enchanted. Sadly I found it hard to tune in to the novel's wavelength, feeling important issues like colour and sexuality have been overwhelmed by contrivances.
The start raises hopes with its self-deprecating humour (teachers mystified how Boy achieves her 'A's, male schoolmates paying her to pen letters to woo potential girlfriends). Then there is that most satisfying escape from a sadistic father, he typical of ogres in stories most grim.
Gradually however everything seems to become cluttered, certain aspects of puzzling relevance. A major twist takes the novel into a new (and far more absorbing) dimension, Twentieth Century American attitudes towards coloureds under close scrutiny.
That final revelation? Readers may differ over whether it convinces.
Throughout there is strong portrayal of female characters, but husband Arturo and Boy's former best friend Charlie undeservedly seem somewhat peripheral.
Very much in the minority, I found "Boy, Snow, Bird" more concerned about literary technique than with heart. Too many artificial devices distract from impact that could have been made. This is a pity, for valuable points are made about colour prejudice, some of them extremely moving. Note particularly the attitude of Arturo's mother, Olivia - she symbolic of desperate measures taken in order to enjoy the American Dream.
Many love the novel. Sorry to be amongst the few not so keen.
It’s 1952. 20-year-old Boy Novak lives with her abusive rat-catcher father in New York, but when his abuse finally goes too far, she steals some of his money and decides to run away. She ends up in Flax Hill, Massachusetts, an arts and crafts town where everyone makes something and where Boy sticks out by not having any real skills. She becomes friends with Mia, an aspiring journalist and meets Arturo Whitman, a former history professor who became a jeweller after his wife died, shortly after the birth of his daughter, Snow.
At first Boy and Snow get along fine – if anything, Boy is beguiled by her step-daughter and is amazed at how Arturo’s family cherish her. But everything changes when Boy gives birth to Bird, and discovers that Arturo and his parents have been keeping secrets that will tear their family apart …
Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel riffs on the traditional fairy tale subject of evil stepmothers in a story of deception, appearances and racism that comes with a hint of magical realism. It’s a beautifully written book spanning two time periods (1952 and 1965) with the narration split between Snow and Bird, who are each given pitch perfect voices that set out their views on the complicated relationships within their family and slowly unveil the secrets kept within it. The problem is that no real drama comes out of these revelations either because characters fail/refuse to directly address it or because it’s dealt with off-page. This is particularly disappointing in the case of the last big reveal, which should have huge ramifications and really deserves a big finale but which instead leads to a low-key resolution with the real action happening after the book ends. It’s a shame because I loved the way Oyeyemi plays with the theme of appearances in this book and the magical realist elements (involving mirrors) really feed into it, as does the subtle way she incorporates the well-worn path of racism at this time in US history. Ultimately, had there been more of a pay-off to the book’s events then, I’d have found this a more satisfying read than I did. That said, the quality of the writing and the way Oyeyemi composes her images means that I can see why she was selected as a Granta Best British novelist and I will definitely check out her other novels.
A novel told in three parts: the first is narrated by Boy Novak, who escapes her home in New York City where she lived with her single parent, the cruel Rat Catcher, by taking a bus to the end of the line to a small town where people excel at making beautiful things. Here Boy, who has never excelled at anything or made anything beautiful, has to forge a life for herself and put down roots. She's a strange character and a hard one to get to know. Although she's planned to run away and makes sure she has some money when she goes, she arrives at the bus station without a clue where it is she wants to run to. I'm not sure she ever really knows what it is she wants from life; she's in love with the boy back home but unwilling to marry him, drawn to Snow's father but a part of her still isn't sure about whether she loves him, stumbling into jobs until she finds one to stick at, not really knowing what it is she wants from life or herself. The second part is narrated by Boy's daughter, Bird, and in the third part, narration shifts back to Boy again. Despite being in the book's title, we never hear from Snow herself except in her letters to her stepmother and half-sister, all we know about her is from what others say about her, and she is effectively banished once her father remarries.
Oyeyemi weaves fairytale and folklore elements into her storytelling - girls who sometimes cannot see themselves in mirrors, a snake amulet made as an engagement present, evil stepmothers and wicked stepdaughters, runaway and banished children, and anansi spiders, among them - but some work much better than others. I thought that the strongest section was Boy's first narration and that the story lost its direction somewhat after this. All three parts are beautifully written but while the second and third parts were interesting and enjoyable to read in themselves, I didn't feel as if they worked as well or were as strong as the first part and that the three parts didn't necessarily hang together as well as they could have for me to enjoy the novel as a whole.
Boy Snow Bird raises some interesting issues on abuse and cruelty, gender and race, self-awareness and public perception. It deals with how you want to be seen by the world and which version of yourself you offer up to others. It is also about how visible or invisible you are to those around you and how present you are in your own life and how much you determine the life you want for yourself and whether or not that's the best one for you. It's also about how much you can really know about the people you are related to or those you marry, especially when they are hiding something from you, and what happens when those secrets come out.