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Helen Oyeyemi – Boy, Snow, Bird

Book Cover

Racial divide? What’s that?

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 306
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-23713-6
First Published: 27th February 2014
Date Reviewed: 6th January 2016
Rating: 3/5

Boy, a girl, runs away from home, the abuse from her father. She gets off the bus at the end of the line, moves through a few menial jobs, makes friends. The boy who loved her, who she loved, is forgotten as life takes her towards businessman Arturo and his reputedly perfect daughter, Snow.

Boy, Snow, Bird is based around three girls/women. There isn’t much plot – what little there is isn’t particularly compelling – this is a book written as a study. It’s not bad but beyond the study there’s little to cling to and the ending comes out of left field.

This study, then, forms the subtle backbone of the story. It’s great, full of the sorts of sentences that beg quotation for the meaning they provide because the handling is really very good. Oyeyemi hasn’t a unique viewpoint, but the way she’s written it is wonderful. To sum it up, the book is about race – divisions and broader social issues in the mid 20th century.

To speak of it in long form, the book is about the way this fictional group of black Americans – whose role in the story is to illustrate this particular angle – try to fit into the mostly white society. Strictly speaking, it’s about colour, for example you aren’t told until 1/3 of the way through that particular characters are black, showing the importance of the question, ‘does colour really matter?’ Now of course you may have viewed these characters as black anyway, the lack of detail at the beginning lets you imagine what you want to imagine – but being shown, suddenly, almost, that they are black is what Oyeyemi seems to have been aiming for, not in order to shock you (in case you’ve seen them as white people) but in a literary fiction shocking way, if that makes sense.

The family of Boy, Snow, Bird accomplish their desire to fit in by never acknowledging their colour. That the book is fictional, verging on magical realism, means that they are able to completely ignore their colour in a dismissive way (without actively being dismissive) that furthers the point without the need for the reader to suspend belief. A prime example of the way the family functions is in the scene wherein Boy is asked, by her black in-laws no less, if she slept with a coloured man to produce her mixed-raced daughter.

On the surface Boy, a white character, finds no shame in differences, and never mentions it beyond her discussions with her in-laws.

“Nice try, but I’m not going to stand here while a coloured woman tries to tell me that maybe I’m the one who’s coloured.”

Oyeyemi’s Boy is open, firm, no nonsense; rather than seeming at all superior, she causes Oyeyemi’s study to be more obvious. There is never any sense that Boy is higher or indeed lower because of her whiteness. Or is there? Why did Boy send away her beautiful step daughter?

The above said, you can likely see where ‘Snow’ comes in. Snow is not white but she’s the apple of her relatives’ eyes, a girl supposedly of lighter skin who everyone adores because of it. She fits into the white society, supposedly tricks white people into thinking she’s like them – of course that she’s like them is Oyeyemi’s whole point so the book is a little meta. As says Boy:

Snow’s beauty is precious because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a coloured girl – we don’t see a coloured girl. The joke’s on us.

In addition to this basic premise, Oyeyemi takes a glance further back to the days of plantations and the differences between ‘house negros’ and the people who worked in the field, the hierarchy there.

Moving on from this subject, it must be said that Boy, Snow, Bird is no fairytale re-telling. Yes there is a beautiful girl called Snow, and yes her stepmother sends her away, and there are mirrors, but beyond that there is nothing. If you want to read an exceptional dialogue of race relations and fitting in, give this book a try, but if you’re looking for a retelling go elsewhere.

Mirrors in this book suggest beauty, look at beauty and identity. What Boy sees in the mirrors she’s obsessed with point to many issues she has and it is primarily here that the book shows the distinction between fantasy and magical realism. It’s a fair subject and an interesting look at both the outer world and the inner world – what one sees in themselves, what others see, and what can cloud perception.

Where Boy, Snow, Bird fails, then, is in the way it’s written. It’s not the words – Oyeyemi writes beautifully – it’s the execution. The addition of characters that don’t aid the plot. Letters when prose and actually meeting the characters would’ve been better. An ending that seems thrown in for good measure. A lack of detail and a general confusion, different to the planned racial confusion, and distance between reader and characters, make it difficult to lose yourself in the text and work out where the characters are, what time they’re in, what’s going on, and what the book is about. Unfortunately the question ‘what does this book want to be?’ can be applied here.

It’s hard to say why the ending was written. In the last few pages Oyeyemi starts up on a completely new issue that is interesting in itself but has no baring on the rest of the book – or at least it shouldn’t; Oyeyemi sort of jams it in. If it is an attempt to provide a reasoning for abuse it fails miserably because it’s not a very nice thing to use in comparisons, at least not in the way it’s been written. If it’s to try and show that the author hasn’t forgotten the set up, it really wasn’t needed here. And if it’s some sort of girls in it together idea it just falls flat. (This issue warrants the use of an extra genre tag but I’m not going to use it because the book does not do that tag and its readership any favours.)

If Boy, Snow, Bird had been a novella or short story, more focused, it would’ve been excellent. As it is although there’s much to like about it on a historical and intellectual level there’s just as much that isn’t so good and as such it’s difficult to fully recommend it. If there was ever a chapter book to dip into, this one is it.

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Jennifer

January 11, 2016, 11:03 am

sounds quite fascinating, both for subject and writing – lovely review!

Lark

January 11, 2016, 9:40 pm

I keep debating about whether I want to read this book, or not. I’ve read a lot of mixed reviews of it. It sounds like it’s good, but maybe not great? Is this a book you’d ever read again? Or is it a one-time read?

Violet

January 12, 2016, 4:58 am

I’ve only read one of her previous novels and I really liked it. I think this one might be up my street but since I broke up with the library and I’m trying not to buy many books this year, I doubt I’ll get around to it. You do make it sound enticing, though.

One would think that by 2016 race and skin colour would no longer be an issue, but it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. *sigh*

Tracy Terry

January 12, 2016, 4:11 pm

Hmm, intrigued by your mention that this is more of a study than anything else. I would perhaps at a push pick it up if I were to see it at the library.

Jeanne

January 12, 2016, 9:09 pm

You make this sound compelling, but I also like your advice to dip into it. That’s kind of how I read the first book I ever read by this author, dipping, and then going back. Some books–and I count Infinite Jest and Tristram Shandy among them–are only fun if you dip in, get as much as you can, and don’t worry about the rest.

Jenny @ Reading the End

January 13, 2016, 12:55 am

Oh, the ending. The ending made me really sad. Up until then, I thought that Oyeyemi had done such a lovely job of building a book — I’ve been following her work for years, and it’s been neat to watch her grow as a writer — and then, blech, the ending. Thematically I get how it fits in, but it just seems like she really, really didn’t think about how that ending would come off, and how shallowly she seems to have engaged with the issues she raises in it. :/

Aarti

January 13, 2016, 10:35 pm

I really enjoyed this book, for the most part. I agree, the whole thing at the end that comes up is completely random and seems to add very little to the story. I guess if you widen the frame to be about identity instead of about race, maybe? All of Oyeyemi’s books are confusing to me, in a good way – definitely make you think.

Charlie

January 14, 2016, 1:05 pm

Jennifer: Oh it is, it’s just not perfect as a whole – definitely low expectations would help.

Lark: I think if you’re going into it prepared to find it average it’ll work better. I doubt I’ll read it in full again though I might pick through the ‘study’ sections, as I’ve called them. If fiction could be used in an essay, this book would be great for that sort of usage.

Violet: Indeed. That said, you saying that, that’s another subtle point I’d say the book makes with its idea of tricking or ‘passing’ as some people are calling it, that, hey, we’re all people. (That sentence was repetitive…) Regarding her other books this one definitely hasn’t put me off; I think in this case it might just be that this book’s a lower point in her career (supposing the others are good).

Tracy: Yes, I’d say so. I’m considering compiling all the quotes I noted down for future use. I think it makes an interesting read on the whole, best if you go in knowing it’s not perfect.

Jeanne: That’s interesting you say it’s similar in another book; interesting to see how she progresses. True, some books you can’t always read the whole of. I think if I *could* have I might have read Anna Karenina as two books… I’ve heard a lot about Infinite Jest, it seems to divide opinion, that’s for sure.

Jenny: I can only agree with that. You can see what she was looking for but it was a step in the wrong direction; it would’ve been better if she’d just left the thread where it was. I suppose some issues are always going to be less in depth when there’s a lot to think about already, but this was one that needed to be done right; unfortunately, that the racial issues were dealt with so well only shows the ending up further.

Aarti: Oh definitely, it could be said it’s identity, but I think to do that in order to explain the ending lessens the power of the rest of it, because the race discussions are so good and important. (Of course gender important, too, but not here so much.) Confusing in a good way can be good; I’d read another of her books – been looking at The Icarus Girl.

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