In some review I read about Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi defined as a Snow White retelling set in USA in the fifties. This definition is quite reductive and, as much the story contains mirrors, a child named Snow and people behaving strangely in front of mirrors, the novel deals with complex problems.
The story begins with Boy Novak, at first a child and then a woman who lives in New York, raised only by her father, the Rat Catcher. Boy endures for years her father violences, until she decides to flee home. The bus will bring her to Flax Hill, Massachuset. Boy at first does not settles in the town she defines “of experts”, because everyone is an expert of a specific field and the town exports high quality products.
Boy meets Arthur Whitman, widower and father of a fairy and beautiful child, Snow. Boy and Arthur marry and they have a daughter, Bird. The child is not white, and her birth shows Boy the secret of the Whitman family. Boy’s mother in law suggests to send Bird to live with her daughter, another black woman, in order to maintain the appearances. Boy instead chooses to send away Snow.
The novel is divided in three parts: the first and the last belong to Boy, the middle one is Bird’s. The character that is best described and has the great appeal to the reader is Boy, also because she tells the major part of the story. In Bird’s section what I found most interesting is the letter’s exchange with her sister Snow, and I would have liked it to have more “space”.
As I said in the beginning, talking about retelling is reductive: Boy is Snow stepmother, but the novel has few similarities with the fairy tale. The novel takes elements also from other fairy tales or classical stories, Bird dressing as Alice but mistaken for a made (by everyone but her mother), Boy looking at the snake bracelet – made by her husband – and commenting about how much it screams “evil stepmother”, and so on.
The main themes are in my opinion two: the racial discrimination and the struggle of the three main characters to find themselves. The racial discrimination is the reason why the Whitman family chooses to change its identity and to become a white family, and in the novel is easy to go from the story to History, with the sad story of Emmett Till, killed only for whistling to a white lady (I noticed this episode is reported also in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).
Finding themselves it’s a path that covers the whole novel; we follow mainly Boy – choosing to be a wife, a mother and something like an evil stepmother – but we can also see something of the other two girls: Bird’s skill in reproducing voices and her desire for truth (like her birth defined a path of uncovering secrets). Snow is beautiful but she is also distant and people do not become her friends.
The novel is enjoyable (more linear than Mr. Fox) and it confirms my interest in Helen Oyeyemi’s works; it written beautifully but I would have liked to hear more about Snow, that is the most neglected character in the book.
* Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi ★★★★☆
*I read this book in english