Thursday, July 3, 2014
Boy, Snow, Bird
I’m so behind on my posts, so I’ll start with Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, a small book and quick read which I finished four or five novels ago. I picked up the book mainly thanks to a generous review from Entertainment Weekly that described it as a retelling of the classic tale of Snow White. I’ll warn you right now though that if you’re looking for the next Wicked or even Maleficent then this book is not for you. The similarities between the fairy tale classic and this book are miniscule to say the least, and I’d say in all honesty the comparison was more a ploy to sell books than anything else.
Boy, Snow, Bird begins its tale in the winter of 1953 in NYC when Boy Novak, the rat catcher’s daughter, escapes the clutches of her sadistic father and makes her way to a small town in Massachusetts. Boy meets and marries Arturo Whitman, a widowed jeweler who has a beautiful young daughter named Snow. Boy is enchanted by the winsome girl and hopes to be a good mother to her husband’s child, but circumstances quickly change when Boy gives birth to a daughter of her own, Bird, who is dark-skinned and exposes the Whitman’s long guarded secret that they are in fact light-skinned African Americans passing for white.
Here’s where the comparison to Snow White comes in, for Boy takes on the role of the wicked stepmother shipping off the beautiful Snow to be raised by Clara, Arturo’s dark-skinned sister who had also been sent away to remain hidden like a guilty sin. Time passes and the story takes some unexpected twists and turns as the characters attempt to give us insight into the subjects of race, beauty and self-identity.
I know this book has received rave reviews from some, including the New York Times, but I just did not connect at all with Boy, Snow, Bird. The book is divided into three parts, narrated by Boy, Bird, and then Boy again, respectively. I found the earliest parts of the book the most compelling read; where we meet Boy, our heroine; a sympathetic figure (initially) cast in the role of lost, mistreated, and unloved waif. Boy’s early freedom and initial forays into discovering both herself and love held some emotional resonance, but then the tale quickly grinds to a halt.
The narrative holds no tension, drama, or emotion, and as such the tale dragged both in pacing and character development. I felt the plotline surrounding Snow could have proved interesting and held some potential, but the author made it nearly a non-issue by shipping her off to live with her aunt and not reintroducing both her views and insights until a teenage Bird connects via letters with her long missing sister. Familial jealousies and the racial prejudices of the time were highlighted in the story, but unlike other books dealing with the racial divide (like The Help or The Invention of Wings, both of which I loved) I felt so disconnected from the characters with no sense of emotional investment in their circumstances (whether good or bad), that in all honesty I was rushing through the last two chapters not because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to the characters, but because I just wanted to finish the darned book, and don’t even get me started on the end which is totally out of nowhere.
Boy, Snow, Bird proved a disappointing read to me, but given the high praise lauded on the book’s young author I’ll definitely give one of her other novels a try in the future.