Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: March 2014
This review was originally published on The Stake.
“Why am I always imagining that I’m other people?” a character wonders in Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel. The author has a few tricks up her sleeve to tackle this question in Boy, Snow, Bird—but could it be she tries to play too many cards in one book?
The novel’s title is not just an evocative list of nouns: these are the names of the three main characters in the story, all of them—even Boy—female. The book opens with Boy, a white blonde twenty year-old raised by an abusive single father (the shiver-inducing “rat catcher”) who flees the big city to make a new life in the small town of Flax Hill. Here she meets the kind and attractive Arturo, a black divorcee who has a daughter named Snow. Boy is put in the position of navigating Arturo’s family, who have a high opinion of his deceased former wife, plus an astronomically high opinion of Snow, a graceful, physically striking person who had the whole town enraptured before being shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle.
Identity is the key that unlocks doors in Oyeyemi’s story. While Boy puzzles over the blatant gender confusion of her first name (“I’ve always wanted to know whether Boy is the name my mother wanted for me, and if so, what kind of person the name was supposed to help me grow up into”), Snow is caught amongst her ancestors grappling with racial purity, some of whom “married to refine a look.” Descended from parents with lighter skin than others in the community, she actually did not know she was “colored” until she was eight years old. Because she is able downplay the fact, and also due to her astounding beauty, she lives on a pedestal as a porcelain doll who others think can do no wrong.
The third character, Bird, is the offspring of Boy and Arturo. She is a strong-minded youth who makes “bringing truth to light” a personal mission. The more she is wrapped into the family drama the more she wants to know about it. She also keeps her own secrets: sometimes her reflection cannot be seen in mirrors. This is a characteristic shared by her mother (and also possibly by Snow) although we don’t ever know for sure if this is an actual thing occurring within the world of the book or simply the product of the characters’ psychology. The story works fine either way, even if the self-identification theme is hit on a bit heavy in the mirror scenes.
The second part of the book focuses on Bird, and is the most engaging: the first-person narration and wandering subject matter work best here from the perspective of a young teen (at least better than it did for the more adult Boy). I did stumble when it took me several pages to determine which character was in charge of part two, and then I was disappointed that the three-part structure did not reflect the title. Instead of Boy, then Snow, then Bird, we get the perspectives of Boy, Bird, then Boy again. It would have been fantastic to get into Snow’s head and hear from all three characters in equal parts. Yet since Snow is such an object of others’ wants and needs in the book, something to be admired and passed around, I can see the logic of leaving her just outside the reader’s grasp.
We do get to know Snow through letters, which is where some of the best musings on race occur. She relates the story of being forced to check a box on a job application form, and what it was like to go out for the evening with darker-skinned friends. The young Bird, too, confronts her own challenges of racial identity. In one intriguing anecdote, she takes it upon herself to dress up as Alice in Wonderland for a school event, and although her mother immediately recognizes the character, her father is the first to mistake the costume for that of a housekeeper:
But everyone was like that, all day. “Who are you supposed to be?” they’d say, giving up after guessing “housekeeper” or “washerwoman.” Then the next thing would be: “But Alice…” the beginning of a sentence nobody seemed to know how to finish.
It’s an effective example of the prickly situation that can result when people have preconceived notions about the race of a well-known fictional character (consider the recent discussion over the casting of the Human Torch, or the furor over past rumors of Donald Glover playing Spiderman), and find themselves expressing their own biases before they are even fully aware of them.
While these examples of racial struggles are instructive, they rarely last longer than a page or two. Even more frustrating is that the racial dynamics of various parts of the story weren’t adequately communicated in several instances. When Boy moves to Flax Hill, I couldn’t grasp that the town had a large population of black citizens. When she becomes part of Arturo’s family, it was unclear at exactly what point Boy knew that his family was so light-skinned that some of them could pass as white. This confusion became a big obstacle to understanding the character dynamics. While I wouldn’t propose using the vocabulary of coffee colors to describe all the skin variations in the story, I do think Oyeyemi should have been more explicit in some cases. It occurred to me that maybe this story could be an effective graphic novel—perhaps visual images would be the best way to put across the social politics of race in the way that Oyeyemi intends.
Or perhaps simply tightening up scenes with more focus would do the trick. There are the seeds of many unexplored threads in Oyeyemi’s work, and she enjoys jumping from one subject to the next while in her characters’ heads. She obviously has style and imagination, akin to Karen Russell. And like Russell, I wonder if the short story is the more powerful medium for her talents.
Her writing is too good to skim, and one quality of short stories is that they encourage increased attention to detail on the part of the reader. Another possibility might have been standalone stories that meld into a greater whole, along the lines of what Jennifer Egan did with A Visit from the Goon Squad. Oyeyemi’s town of Flax Hill is vibrant, and I could imagine stories centering on any number of characters. Perhaps this could have alleviated the need for the slim final section which puts a lot of weight on Boy’s arc to carry the book through to its ending. There is a substantial reveal around an important character, but it’s a bit too deliberate in a book whose style never called for any sort of twist. In a collection of vignettes, however, the author’s poetic sensibilities would have room to expand.
So, the book birds of spring are chirping about which fiction titles are turning heads, and Boy, Snow, Bird has been spotted on many lists. Personally, I’m still trying to pin down what the book set out to do. The various shades of the characterizations are just inviting enough to make me consider going back to page one and giving everything another look—yet I was just frustrated enough about the lack of cohesion on the first time through that it’s hard to justify a second shot. However, if Helen Oyeyemi has any short story collections lined up, I’m game. She has a lot more to offer if she could just find her way through the structural mirrors.