Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird is one of those books that's been hovering on the periphery of my awareness for a while now. I had seen the positive press, glanced over a few intriguing reviews, heard about the general premise. So when I finally caught sight of it at the library, I snapped it up.

Before you go any further, know that the book is structured in such a way that an important revelation occurs at its halfway mark. It's a long time coming and involves a considerable amount of setup, yet in many ways it forms the crux of the story. Other reviews aren't shy about discussing it, so if you want to experience the story with no foreknowledge whatsoever, then it's best to give this and other reviews a wide berth.

Anyone who thinks Boy, Snow, Bird is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale (as I've seen it described multiple times) is going to be disappointed. This is a novel inspired by the fairy tale, not built around it, often alluding to its motifs and characters, but following no familiar plot trajectory. Set predominantly in 1950s America, the book focuses on the lives of three women and the nature of beauty as it exists in black, white and mixed race individuals. What better fairy tale to base all this on than the one whose heroine's beauty is quite literally exalted in the whiteness of her name?

Boy Novak plays the role of the Wicked Stepmother (such as it is), a young white-haired woman who flees an abusive father for the New England town of Flax Hill, where her new friends eventually introduce her to Arturo Whitman. He's a widowed father with a little girl called Snow, the apple of her extended family's eye. She's adored by everyone who meets her – save Boy, who is a little unnerved by the child and the veneration in which she's held.

She marries Arturo and all seems well until she gives birth to their first child. It's only then that she realizes her husband's family have been keeping a secret from her: that they are light-skinned African-Americans passing as white, and newborn Bird is a genetic throwback to their forebears.  

Reaction to Bird is mixed, and most of Arturo's family expect Boy to send the newborn to his sister Clara, a member of the Whitman family whose dark skin has estranged her from the rest. Instead Boy does something rather extraordinary. Knowing that her own child will forever be unfavourably compared to her fair-skinned half-sister, she sends her stepdaughter away instead.

Is it an act of love or cowardice? Cruelty against Snow or compassion for Bird? Taking this premise and focusing it through the prism of how beauty is defined, measured and responded to, Helen Oyeyemi constructs a story that explores race, gender, identity and other issues with such a light touch that you can't discern her own opinions when it comes to how such things affect the lives of her characters (let's be honest here, most authors are too eager to make a point on such topics, and end up dealing with them in an overtly heavy-handed manner). When it comes to the subject of passing, Oyeyemi makes no judgment calls, though is careful to present all possible arguments and attitudes to the Whitman family's life choices. Are they betraying themselves? Or is it justifiable to try and avoid inherent prejudices in their society? Are they letting down their darker relatives? Or is the gain worth the cost?

Obviously I'm not in any sort of position to have an informed opinion on this subject – it was enough to simply have it raised and explored throughout the novel.  

Because the book is based (at least a little) on Snow White, you can't help but search for familiar components in the text. For example, most fairy tales have a villain – so who fills the role here? Is it Boy, the wicked stepmother? Snow, the painfully perfect princess? Boy's abusive father, who clearly has a dark secret of his own? Every character's preoccupation with mirrors suggests another option; a personal darkness or insecurity set against a backdrop fraught with racial/gender divides. And yet there are no overt examples of racism or sexism over the course of the novel – instead it simmers in the background; ever-there, ever-constant, always foremost in the minds of the characters.

As such, you could sit down with a pen/paper and devote hours to analysing and unravelling Oyeyemi's use of mirrors and the villainous effect they have on characters. Some don't always give the right reflections, others refuse to give out reflections at all. Then of course, there's the implication that a person sees him or herself in the face of their own children, and how we can glimpse our own reflections in the shine of another's eyes. If there's a villain here, it's the mirror that we hold up to our own faces, and the way we judge beauty all around us – whether we're the possessor or the beholder of it. One particularly striking passage captures this struggle:

It's not whiteness itself that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness . . . we beat Them (and spare ourselves a lot of tedium and terror) by declining to worship.

It's a thematic web of fairy tales and social issues supplemented by bits and pieces of other stories: lullabies, nursery rhymes, Arthurian legend, children's books – allusions that remind us of how deeply certain tales and their ethical framework permeate Western culture, particularly our beauty values.

Boy, Snow, Bird is fascinating but not perfect. The ending of the book in particular provides only a modicum of catharsis, and does not end so much as it stops – so abruptly in fact that I was flicking through the final blank pages, searching for more. But Oyeyemi is a beautiful writer, creating two distinct voices for Boy and Bird, and scattering her prose with insights that are moving, profound or funny. One of my favourites:

[Dad] brought me back a gift from Snow – a small, square, white birdcage with a broken door. I hung the cage from the ceiling and watched it swing, and I was happy. I can't explain, maybe it isn't something that needs explaining, how the sight of a broken cage just puts you up on stilts. The promise that the cage will always be empty, that its days as a jailhouse are done.

It's a strange, thought-provoking read, but I also found it a surprisingly easy one. Oyeyemi has a style that flows effortlessly from page to page, filling almost every sentence with meaning, but never slowing down to deliver any overt messages. Perhaps it could get a little opaque at times, with a few forays into magic realism, but for me at least it's one of those books that gets under your skin and plays on your mind for some days after its concluded.

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