Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (3-Mar-2015) Paperback Paperback – 1600
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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.
*SPOILER* the plot twist at the end which reveals that Boy's 'birth' mother is a man of transgender experience seems rather tacked on, and utilised for dramatic pathos, rather than as a way to give voice or platform to a transgender character. This is jarring with the otherwise sensitive and nuanced storytelling which precedes it.
The writing isn't bad per say.
The characters can be flat and bland- Snow especially.
The shift from prose to letters to prose is annoying and feels like an attempt to move tge story along a bit quicker...a welcome thing too because by then you want it over.
A shame as it had loads of potential.