Upon first glance, it would seem that to read the jacket copy (or any review) for Helen Oyeyemi’s incandescent new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, is to risk ruining the whole thing. Granted, anyone familiar with Oyeyemi’s oeuvre can probably guess that the subject of race and the concept of otherness will interweave with established parables or familiar folk tales to form a kind of delicious narrative stew. But actually, the execution is so stunning, it doesn’t really matter if a reader knows exactly where this tale is headed. This is the fifth novel from 29-year-old Oyeyemi, and while those previous works certainly had their lovely moments, it appears she’s finally gotten her recipe just right.
Boy, Snow, Bird borrows the bare bones of the Snow White fairy tale and structures a whole new story around them, an utterly enchanting yet oddly eviscerating one that’s really a deliberation about the lives of three girls: Boy, Snow, and Bird Whitman. And it is telling to use the word “girls” here; although the entire chronology of the novel occurs when Boy is an adult, many of her actions are predicated on events from her childhood and their reverberating effects. The novel opens with an economic explanation of Boy’s upbringing, education, and grim home life. Her grotesquely abusive father remains nameless for most of the book—Boy calls him “Papa” once and “the rat catcher” most often—and that’s how it should be: He’s a monster that continues to haunt her, and we don’t name monsters. It finally dawns on a 20-year-old Boy Novak that if she stays one of them will end up dead, and she flees her Lower East Side tenement apartment for a life in Flax Hill, Massachusetts, where people specialize in making beautiful things.
In Flax Hill, Boy meets a widower jeweler, Arturo Whitman, his preternaturally lovely daughter, Snow, and his extended family. Soon enough, Boy Novak is Mrs. Boy Whitman, and what initially appeared to be a curious coming-of-age tale about a young woman who clearly has an issue with mirrors becomes something else entirely: an unlikely meditation on race, identity, gender, and love. Boy and Arturo have another daughter, Bird, whose birth recasts several familial relationships and forces Boy to find a resolve to protect her daughter in ways that she was never protected.
The novel is an intensely dramatic ride, even taken apart from its Snow White conceit, full of a cast of peripheral characters who reappear throughout and convey their significance to the story. And it works equally well if the somewhat supernatural elements are taken as literal events or as enigmatic metaphor. These women reflect on their lives continuously, and these reflections (pun intended) shift as their perspectives shift. If there’s one thread to Boy, Snow, Bird that doesn’t quite pay off, it would be that novel is divided tidily into three parts, which initially seems to be a prime opportunity to reflect its triptych of a title. But two parts are told from Boy’s point of view, and one from Bird’s. This leads to Snow seeming less fleshed-out, though she is of utmost importance. Snow is an object or an abstraction, not a person or character. She’s a symbol for adoration or a goal on which an older generation can hang its hopes. Consequently, her development initially seems less of an evolution than it could have been. It makes her decisions toward the end of the book less of a revelation. But perhaps that was Oyeyemi’s intent all along: Maybe Snow Whitman is actually born at the end of this novel.