Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

Girl Cave Rose. Prince Dark Mirror. Crow Cellar Ring.

One has the sense that Helen Oyeyemi thinks in threes.

Also that she views the world through a slightly skewed lens.

Boy Snow Bird Oyeyemi

Hamish Hamilton – Penguin, 2014

But Boy, Snow, Bird is not simply a random collection of resonant images and ideas; the book is named for a trio of women, whose voices are vitally important to the reader’s experience of this story.

Add the family name Whitman to the mix and it’s clear that the reader is meant to bring a certain knowledge of Snow to the tale.

And, yet, Helen Oyeyemi’s story feels more like a game of telephone with “Snow White” than a retelling of the tale.

There is something eerily familiar to the story, but most impressive is where the tale diverges from the reader’s vague (and possibly Disney-fied) expectations. For Boy, Snow, Bird is not a typical fairy tale.

Take Mme d’Aulnoy’s traditional tale for example. (This is a long excerpt, but directly relevant to Helen Oyeyemi’s novel, from which one can quote very litte without risking spoilers.)

Once upon a time there lived the daughter of a king, who was so beautiful that there was nothing quite so beautiful on earth; and because she was so beautiful, she was called Beauty with the Golden Hair, for her hair was finer than gold, and marvellously wondrously blonde, all curly, and fell to her feet. She was always covered by her wavy hair, and clothes embroidered with diamonds and pearls, so that you could not look on her without loving her.*

There is a blonde, pale-skinned beauty in Boy, Snow, Bird. And there is a mirror. There are secrets which are kept in dark places. Questions are posed. But Helen Oyeyemi’s marvellously wondrously blonde girl is not what the reader expects. Nor is beauty. Nor goodness.

“This way my mother’s alive, she’s dead, she’s whatever she deserves to be on that particular day.”

It can be like this – alive, dead, changing – in a single moment. And the question of identity is an integral part of this novel. What one is and what one deserves to be: how those states might not be just yet can be transformed, with a spell, with intent.

“I also went up half a shoe size, which pleased me because it was another bridge burned between me and the rat catcher. Come into town, rat catcher, come looking for your daughter, come holding a pair of the shoes she left. Say to everyone who’ll listen: ‘If the shoes fit, she’s mine.’”

Though, arguably, understanding is an even more important theme, even though there is as much about distance and dissonance as there is about connection and compassion.

“This doesn’t feel like my life, if feels like somebody else’s. I’m standing here holding somebody else’s life for them, trying to keep it steady while it bobs up and down like a ferocious balloon. Make this little girl let me go – I don’t know if I want her. Can’t I start over?”

What ultimately appears to preoccupy the author are the challenges, the walls that exist, and the ways in which one might peer above or beyond them.

“One day soon a wall will come up between us, and I won’t be able to follow her behind it.”

This volume does not possess the lyricism of Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, or the sense of layered construction in Joytsna Sreenivasan’s And Laughter Fell from the Sky and Tanith Lee’s White as Snow.

But Helen Oyeyemi’s style is distinctive, bold and challenging. From peroxide to rat-catching, from “Good Housekeeping” to Frederick Douglass: Boy, Snow, Bird casts a new light in dark corners.

So it’s not so much that Helen Oyeyemi looks through a slighly skewed lens at the world, but that she offers the reader the chance to do so. And isn’t that just what art is meant to do.

Have you read this novel? Or, do you plan to? Or, perhaps you’ve read another of hers?

*Quoted from Marina Warner’s consideration of the story in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1994)

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9 comments to Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

  • There is definitely a boldness to this story. Oyeyemi does so much more than give readers just a fairy tale retelling. Now I need to check out the other tales that you mention like Kissing the Witch.

  • I’ve read a few reviews of this now and it sounds like such a fascinating book. Firmly on the tbr after the Women’s Prize reading is done.

  • I read this book and enjoyed it though I am a bit flummoxed by the ending. It seemed to come out of nowhere to me and I think I missed the point of it.

    I will absolutely be reading the other books you mentioned – Kissing the Witch and And Laughter Fell from the Sky in particular!

    • When I finished, I felt that way too. I was still wrapped up in the characters and the revelation, placed as it was, felt abrupt and shocking-without-explanation. So disorienting!

      But thinking back on it, with a bit of distance, I can also see how it fits. The story begins with an upset, in the first page or two, in that readers learn that the narrator (of that section, at least), Boy, is actually not a Boy. So if you imagine a mirror, reflecting the story, it makes “sense” there would be an upset at the end, too. (Expectations are thwarted throughout, but you will know why I mention this one in particular, beyond its placement.)

      It also resonates with some traditional tales too, in that they can be all about the question/question/pursuit, and then, suddenly, it’s the end, and “happily ever after” and such, but the reader is left wanting to know how things really turned out for the characters.

  • Kat

    What a lovely review. This is one of your best (I think!) I love retold fairy tales and must add this to my list. I’ve read good reviews of this, but yours is the only one that has inspired me. You know how it is…sometimes it sounds good, but not for me.

    • Thanks, Kat: I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on it, although we don’t always have the same taste. I think, at the very least, you will be intrigued by the intent behind the storytelling. Have you read Tanith Lee’s retelling? Knowing you love Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, I’m thinking you’d enjoy that one a great deal.

  • Sandra

    I definitely want to read this one: thank you for the inspiring review. I also peeked inside Mr. Fox recently and want very much to read it as well. Thanks for the other recommendations too.

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