Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi)

My previous Helen Oyeyemi experience was her 2011 book Mr. Fox. It intrigued me because everyone was very excited that it was a retelling of the Bluebeard story, but after I finished it, I felt strange: certainly I had enjoyed the book, but I felt like I hadn't fully grasped it, like there were about 600 more things running underneath the surface and I had only glimpsed 9 or 10 of them.

But I was willing to give Boy, Snow, Bird a go because it was billed as a retelling of Snow White, albeit one that played as much with ideas of race as it did with fairy tale conventions: Boy Novak runs away from her abusive father and ends up in a small town in Massachusetts. Among others, she meets Arturo Whitman, who has a beautiful daughter named Snow. Everyone who meets her is delighted by her, charmed by her innocence and gorgeous appearance.

Eventually, Snow marries Arturo, and when she has his baby, she makes a discovery: Arturo's family has been passing for white for decades, but her baby, Bird, has the dark skin that reveals the Whitman secret. Boy is accused of sleeping with a man other than her husband, and her in-laws suggest that she send the baby to live with Arturo's dark-skinned sister. Outraged, Snow instead sends Snow away, convinced that her stepdaughter is not all she seems.

I can say with certainty that it's the most interesting method of retelling the story I've come across. Maybe the biggest issue I have with the book, though, has little to do with the book and a lot to do with the blurbing and publishing hype. It feels to me like Oyeyemi thought to herself "what about a Snow White story?", but by the time she finished, said "that was a great jumping-off point, but this book is something else now!" The big push when the book was released focused on the fairy tale aspects, and it forced me too hard into drawing parallels that weren't really there. It's more about archetypes than plot, as far as retellings go.

And Oyeyemi does really interesting things with the character archetypes. Boy is the wicked queen figure, but not until almost halfway through the book. She isn't driven merely by vanity, but by disappointment and deception. The second section of the book actually switches from Boy's perspective to Bird's, and I was (at least for awhile) upset about the shift: I really, really loved Boy's narrative voice. The author does a great job writing this woman who is cold and hardened by life but still a real person underneath, one who recognizes the necessity of making choices that are strategic even when emotions dictate rash, less logical choices.

Bird's section is where my concerns about the text itself (rather than its marketing) began to manifest. We jump forward to when Bird is a young teenager; normally I dislike time-skipping as a narrative device, but I had no problem with it here. My issue is that Bird sounds very adult: I've read plenty of books this year featuring young narrators where the author nails sounding like he belongs to that age group (Black Swan Green and Grasshopper Jungle in particular). Bird's narrative voice is too advanced for someone her age, and while it's not a huge issue, it's enough of a problem that I'm mentioning it here.

This is also the section of the book where reality starts to unravel a little bit: Bird talks about how she is sometimes not reflected in mirrors, or she talks to spiders, or she feels a past memory connected to a piece of fabric. I'm never opposed to magical realism, and I generally don't care if the magical realism is explained, but I like these things to be used with narrative purpose, and I don't feel they were. They were lovely moments, but they didn't feel like part of the book. It was...not quite frustrating, but at the very least puzzling.

And the ending! We switch back to Boy for part three, and it's very strange indeed. It reminded me a lot of The Wasp Factory, but this short last section felt even more purposeless than the magical realism of the section that preceded it. I was satisfied to return to Boy's perspective, but it was countered by my dissatisfaction with where it went.

For a second time, I've finished an Oyeyemi novel and enjoyed it. Again, I feel as though I didn't peel through every layer of the novel, didn't strike its core and understand it the way I was supposed to. But I'm questioning that feeling this time: are there just things here that needn't be? Nonetheless, Boy, Snow, Bird was a good book. I would have loved it if things had ended after section one, but I'm not in control of the universe for a reason.

My rating: 4/5
Boy, Snow, Bird on Goodreads
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