First published on 25th May, 2014 in The Star.
Review by DAPHNE LEE
BOY, SNOW, BIRD
Author: Helen Oyeyemi
IN Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel, nothing is what it seems, hardly anyone is what they appear to be. The whole is misdirection, right from the title, with its three names that reveal and conceal. Boy, Snow, Bird – names that make a show of telling the truth yet hint at mysteries and secrets.
Take Boy – not a boy, but a beautiful girl – an icy beauty, white-blond, black-eyed. With a name like Boy she could only be a character in soap opera or a fairy tale. She is neither. Boy’s life is a nightmare thanks to an abusive and sadistic father who traps rats for a living. The time comes when Boy decides to leave, to avoid death or maiming, and seek her fortune. She ends up in Flax Hill, a small New England town where she meets Arturo Whitmore, a widower with a daughter named Snow.
Lies are at the centre of this story, they are its foundation and its decoration. They drive the plot, and shape the lives of the characters. The story is a broken mirror (mirrors are an important in this book): each piece of glass tells a lie of some sort, and the whole is a distorted image that changes according to your perspective, and depending on the kinds of patterns you see in the cracks. Maybe there are no patterns. Maybe you see rifts, dividing lines that you can fall through, disappear into.
Snow. Think of everything you associate with that word. She is all that, but she is also … less, and … more than meets the eye – depending on your point of view; depending on your level of paranoia; depending on your dedication to the role of wicked stepmother.
Boy marries Arturo and has a baby girl: Bird. She is the catalyst, the truth that blows everything out of the water. The truth will set you free, right? Once again, it depends on your point of view; it depends on whether you see truth as freedom or imprisonment; it depends on whether you see lies as a lock or a key.
If you want spoilers, go read an online review. They are mostly pretty casual about giving the game away, but I believe you should let the story speak for itself. OK, so this isn’t a mystery novel, but I still think the way each detail emerges adds value to the delicious whole. The distorted image, I feel, has to slowly click into place. Timing is imperative – each piece should show up only when it should, the adjacent pieces either already there, ready to act in context or as reference points, or else significant in their absence.
The picture glitters, is monstrous, offering a strangely cold, bloodless view of scenes dark and violent. This is partly due to Boy’s frosty demeanour (the first and third parts of the book are told from her point of view), her awkward detachment and cynicism, the pale hair and hard eyes. Boy’s every move is calculated, but her history excuses her, and I found even her most cold-blooded actions acceptable because they reveal vulnerability – not of the soft and helpless variety, but the sort that snaps at sudden movements and false moves, the sort that bites and kills.
That Boy, Oyeyemi’s most fully-realised character to date, is capable of killing (something she acknowledges, but only out of necessity, mind you) is an unexpectedly attractive quality. She’s no-nonsense, but she’s not kick-ass. Imperfect in her pale, thin-skinned villainy, she constantly second-guesses her instinctive, outrageous cruelty. All things considered, I could relate.
I found it less easy to empathise with Snow and Bird. We see Snow only through Boy and Bird’s eyes, and given the former’s suspicion and the latter’s precocious arrogance, Snow never rings quite true, always appearing less like a person, more like the idea of one. This may be deliberate on Oyeyemi’s part, in keeping with the novel’s look at perception versus reality: as everything is perceived, is there really such a thing as “real”? Maybe what we perceive as real is just better at presenting itself as such.
As for Bird, she reads too much like a plot point. The personification of truth (beautiful, blatant, hard to take), she is also used by the author to explore questions of social and psychological subjectivity. The book’s second section is told largely in Bird’s voice and it’s here that you’re reminded that the Oyeyemi made Granta’s pretentious Best of Young British Novelists list.
Otherwise, Boy, Snow, Bird is a story to read and re-read, to savour and think about. The final denouement may be a bit too much to take, but Boy’s credibility allows for the necessary suspension of disbelief. Boy – the character, her voice, her story – sings the novel to life. She is why you keep turning the pages, why you’ll keep returning to the book. And, by the way, if this is a re-telling of the Snow White fairytale, Snow is a red-herring. Boy is the princess who escapes, searches for beauty, finds peace. The last page sees her still looking, but that’s as it should be.