79 of 85 people found the following review helpful
[Spoiler warning: because of the way BOY, SNOW, BIRD is structured, it's difficult to discuss the novel without giving away plot points that emerge around the halfway point. This review won't reveal anything that isn't discussed in the cover copy or implicit in the mythic structure, but readers who want to come to the novel not knowing anything should stop here, with my strong recommendation for this novel about identity and the ambiguities of race, gender, and family life.]
The title of Helen Oyeyemi's excellent new novel derives from the names of its three female protagonists. Boy is Boy Novak, who escapes an abusive childhood in 1950s New York and comes to the Massachusetts town of Flax Hill, eventually marrying local widower Arturo Whitman. Snow is Arturo's daughter, a girl of uncommon beauty who makes Boy obscurely uncomfortable. And Bird is the daughter Boy and Arturo have together, whose dark skin reveals the family's secret: Arturo, his late wife, and their families were all African-Americans passing as white. Boy, worried about what the difference between Snow and Bird will mean for her own daughter and plagued by demons of her own, sends Snow away to live with relatives. But years later, when Bird is a teenager, Snow returns...
Some readers will already have identified the fairy tale of which this is a loose retelling; others will recognize it after learning that Boy, Snow, and Bird all have a strange fascination with mirrors. But the emphasis is on "loose" rather than "retelling:" those expecting a point-for-point recasting of Snow White will be disappointed. Though the novel's imagery frequently draws on myths and folktales, a reminder of how deeply their motifs and moral assumptions have shaped the collective imagination, its plot uses only certain elements of that specific story, as a springboard for an examination of the meaning and consequences of beauty, race, gender, and power for individual identity. A large cast of characters allows Oyeyemi to examine these issues from all sides, acknowledging their complexity and avoiding reductive answers. As one character says, "If I'm going to talk about this thing, I don't want to be confirming anybody's theories about the way life goes-- not even my own."
The first half of the novel is narrated by Boy, in whom the wicked stepmother is recast as a wry, self-sufficient woman whose ruthlessly managed expectations may be a flight from true intimacy. For her as for all three protagonists, looking in the mirror is less an act of vanity and more a search for self. Her worldview, and the sharply ironic humor that makes the novel a joy to read, is captured in her reaction to a movie: "It was one of those ones they call screwball comedies, where people mislead and ill-treat each other in the most shocking and baffling ways possible, then forgive and forget about it because they happen to like the look of each other. Only they call it falling in love. Those movies are the equivalent of supernatural thrillers for me-- if I watched them too closely, I'd shriek uncontrollably." Bird's voice, which takes over later on, is more direct, reflecting her youth, and a childhood more loving and less painful than what her mother endured, but she's no less alert to the emotional dynamics of her extended family and the consequences of its decision to pass as white.
Oyeyemi carefully works out all the arguments that might be made about passing: that victims of prejudice should survive any way they can, that people shouldn't flee their identities, that if race doesn't matter it shouldn't matter, that the gain isn't worth the cost. The pain wrought by notions of racial worth is never far away. But this isn't an "issue novel." Big themes don't exist in neat abstractions; they matter only as they play out in actual, messy lives. This is a story about particular people and the choices they've made, with the reader left to judge as and if she wishes. Boy's decision to send Snow away isn't simply about the problem (if it is a problem) of sisters with different apparent races: it's also a matter of Boy's insecurities, about herself, her past, beauty and love and the line between self-possession and self-satisfaction. A late plot development further complicates the novel's investigation of the line between image and reality, and leads to a climax that perfectly evokes the necessity of confronting the terrible things we do for love, and the possibility, however faint, of forgiving each other for them. Rigorously thought-through but emotionally rich, cynical yet humanist, painful and funny, this is an outstanding novel about the terrible power of images to disrupt the self.
106 of 118 people found the following review helpful
After struggling with this book then reading the glowing reviews, I am stuck with the reality that this is a book I either completely missed, or one that is not in my interest area no matter how slowly I read it, or even re-read it.
The style of author Helen Oyeyemi was a tough nut for me to crack. The side steps into fantasy, the lack of smooth transitions, and what I perceived as heavy-handedness were obstacles to my enjoyment. I found myself unable to sustain interest and labored to get through it. In short, it seemed to never really go anywhere, nor was the main character Boy fascinating enough to make me care and lock me in.
Again, I’m in the minority thus far and it’s clear that others found plenty to cherish in this novel. I almost wish I did, too, but there are too many other books to discover for me to fret over this particular literary disconnect. I hope you enjoy it more than I did.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
I've heard quite a bit of praise for British novelist Helen Oyeyemi, who is known for combining mythology and other traditional stories with more commonplace matter. BOY, SNOW, BIRD is her fifth novel and the first one I've read. I'm having difficultly untangling my feelings about it.
BOY, SNOW, BIRD is inspired by Snow White and American history. (It's set in the fifties.) Boy, the narrator of the first and the last section, is a young woman who runs away from home when it becomes clear that her father might kill her one day. She makes a new life for herself in a small town, friendships, dates, a job, the works. But her new life has unexpected complications, including the other two eponymous characters. Bird narrates the second part, and Snow doesn't narrate at all. I want Snow's point of view, but it makes sense, given that so much of the book is about how people perceive Snow and whether their perception is right.
One thing I truly enjoyed is how my perception of BOY, SNOW, BIRD changed as I was reading it. It wasn't the story I - or Boy - expected. There are, for instance, little seeds of what will become major plot points in the first half, but it's easy to overlook them as just bits of set dressing. BOY, SNOW, BIRD is a novel that tackles complex subjects while keeping the focus on people and their actions. The Snow White theme provides structure, but BOY, SNOW, BIRD has no easily digestible moral.
My issue is that I felt adrift at the end of the novel. I was thoroughly engrossed, and then it ended. There's a small catharsis at the end, but very small. I felt like the characters' journeys weren't through. I don't think there was much story left, but there was something. I was fascinated by BOY, SNOW, BIRD and thought it was full of wonderful ideas wonderfully expressed. But in the end, I'm not sure that it went anywhere or that anything really happened. It is perhaps too quiet and subtle.
BOY, SNOW, BIRD blends literary fiction quite beautifully with just a hit of fairytale sensibility. I loved Boy, and her complicated relationships with the people she loves. Bird and Snow were likewise interesting, compelling characters. Halfway through BOY, SNOW, BIRD, I thought it was going to be a favorite. But I don't love it, although I do think it was a good reading experience. I am eager to read more of Oyeyemi's work.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2014
I heard about this book on NPR and thought it sounded interesting. According to NPR, the book was supposed to be a modern fairy tale and a study of race-relations in 1945 New England. However, the core premise of the book was not introduced until the halfway point, and towards the end, the author abandons the theme in favor of sexuality. The last part of the book came so out of left field that I felt like I was reading a different book.
For me, the book lacked cohesiveness and direction.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2014
WARNING: REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
The oddball title of this book was the first thing to intrigue me -- at first it just seemed to be three random words strong together, though I expected them to have some bearing on the story itself. The book description hooked me further, however -- "retold fairy tales" is a favorite genre of mine, and even if the author decides to transport the fairy tale to another era and/or country, it can often work regardless. And a retelling of "Snow White" set amid the racial strife of the fifties and sixties had a lot of potential in my opinion. And I must admit, having three main characters with such unique names was also something of a draw -- the title is actually the names of three of the principal characters, all women and all united by family ties of some sort. So though I knew nothing about the author of this work, I picked up the book.
Perhaps I picked this up expecting too much, but it fell incredibly flat for me. I expected a fractured fairy tale, and instead got a story about race and family relations that can't seem to decide what direction it ultimately wants to go.
Boy is a young woman who flees her abusive father, a rat catcher in New York City, for a small town in Massachusetts. She ends up befriending several townsfolk, including a history professor turned jeweler and his beautiful daughter Snow, whom everyone seems to adore. She ends up marrying the jeweler -- more for security than out of actual love -- and becomes stepmother to Snow, all the while wondering if she'll fall into the cliché of wicked stepmother. When her own daughter, Bird, is born unexpectedly dark-skinned, she learns that her husband's family have been hiding a secret -- they're light-skinned African Americans who, through both careful breeding and ostracizing of dark-skinned members of the family, have been living as white for years. Boy reacts by sending Snow to live with other relatives, but Bird maintains contact with her sister anyhow, and the two end up uncovering some uncomfortable truths about their family... and Boy's family.
I'll begin by saying that I LOVED Helen Oyeyemi's writing style. She has a smooth, lyrical style and a keen eye for detail, both in her descriptions and her observations of life and humanity in general. She's able to describe the relatively mundane settings of New York City or Flax Hill, Massachusetts in such a way that they feel like a far-off country. This does have the side effect of leaking into her characters' voices, so the dialogue comes across as stilted and unrealistic at times, but in a better book I could have forgiven this.
The characters are a mixed bag. I loved Snow and Bird -- they felt like the most likable and realistic characters in the book, and I enjoyed the section written from Bird's point of view (and wish Snow had gotten a POV section to herself as well). Boy, despite getting the most focus of the story, is curiously unlikable. Her decision for sending Snow away is never properly justified, and I find it hard to believe that her husband's family would have allowed that given how devoted they seemed to be to her throughout the book. Her in-laws are a stuffy, unlikable bunch, her husband is flat and wooden, and her friends seem to be the prerequisite eccentric bunch. As for her father the rat-catcher... he's a complete monster, and a revelation that comes up in the last twenty pages or so of the book seems to be geared toward making him sympathetic but does nothing to change my mind. But more on that later.
The book veers into fantasy (or perhaps magical realism is a better term for it) from time to time, but never with any consistency or even purpose. At one point Boy sees a vision, but this happens once and is never mentioned again. Both Snow and Bird mention not being able to see themselves in mirrors from time to time, but again, nothing is made of this plot point. And Bird has a curious fascination with spiders and even mentions being able to talk to them, but again, this never gets explained or becomes vital to the plot at any point -- though given that Bird is young, its possible that the spider thing is simply her own flight of fancy and not an actual fantastical element.
Speaking of fantastical element, this is NOT a retold fairy tale. There's some references to fairy tales throughout -- Snow's name, Boy considering herself the wicked stepmother, the fascination with mirrors throughout, and another reviewer has referred to the rat catcher as a reference to the Pied Piper of Hamlin -- but the story has very little to do with "Snow White" or any other fairy tale aside from these superficial references. Just a warning to those expecting this to follow a fairy-tale format...
The book itself seems to want to be about race -- or more to the point, whether its better to be proud of your race even if it means hardship and prejudice, or to pretend to be something you're not in order to live a better life. The message gets muddled along the way, though, as it veers off into odd tangents and can't seem to stay focused on one character or theme for any great length of time. There's little in the way of cohesive narrative, and the book feels more like a mishmash of disconnected scenes than a story with an actual beginning, middle, and end. Characters act unnaturally, without good reasons for their actions, and spend a good deal of their time preaching their message instead of actually furthering the story.
A final complaint -- the ending resolves nothing of the main plot. Instead of trying to find a decent way of tying things up, it throws in a plot twist that comes with no foreshadowing whatsoever. It feels like a cheap way to make us feel sympathy for Boy's abusive father (hint: it doesn't work) or to throw one more hot-button issue into a story that's already wrestling with its own social issue. The twist does nothing to resolve the story, and the narrative doesn't end so much as it just screeches to a halt mid-scene.
I really wanted to like this book, but it's such a muddled mess that I can't bring myself to recommend it to anyone. I give it two stars for its writing style, but otherwise found it a wandering mess of a book that tries to tackle big issues but only succeeds in being confusing and frustrating. If you want something that actually deals with race issues, read Toni Morrison or Alice Walker instead. If you want an actual fractured fairy tale told in a magical-realism setting, try "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2014
Really glad I borrowed this and didn't purchase it. Seriously. What was that? It was like a frayed rope, so many loose ends, weird, and possibly, it may have been written by someone who has severe attention deficit. It jumps from one thing to the next and never finishes anything, really. The relationships between the characters are completely unrealistic and unrelatable. Don't waste your time.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2014
Confusingly sparse and incomplete. Sadly, this reads like a high school student's unfinished Toni Morrison short story knock-off rather than a fully realized original novel.
27 of 36 people found the following review helpful
“Boy, Snow, Bird,” by Helen Oyeyemi, is a dark and disturbing novel about self-identity in a complex world simmering with prejudice and misery. The author’s highly stylized prose is unique, stunning, and brilliantly imaginative. The book is full of inventive, dazzling, and lyrical surprises. The tale teems with well-known, as well as quite obscure, fairy tale motifs. The author also enchants by sprinkling magical realism in odd places here and there in the mists of the plot’s everyday reality. The realistic and the magical worlds collide and play off against one another adding emphasis and making the realism appear just that much more grotesque. At times the book reads like a strange brew of marvelous modern macabre.
But this otherwise outstanding book failed me in a significant way. Despite the author’s remarkable and obvious literary talents, I felt emotionally detached from the disturbing subject as well as from the characters. This was a novel that appealed mainly to the intellect rather than the heart. This is primarily why I hesitated and did not give this work five stars. I wanted more of an emotional connection with the characters.
There are three main characters: Boy, Snow, and Bird. Boy is a beautiful, but emotionally damaged woman, the odd survivor of a bizarre abusive childhood. After developing into a ravishing twenty-year-old platinum blond, she manages to escape her dehumanizing family situation and flees to a small town in New England. There she makes a life for herself, meets a young widower, and marries him despite the fact that she is not in love. Boy values freedom too much to allow love to enter her heart. She has never known love; how can she give it?
Snow Whitman is Boy’s husband’s six-year-old daughter. Boy is both strongly attracted and terrified by this child. Snow is arrestingly beautiful. She is the type of child everyone idolizes and desires, the type of child that has the world at her beck and call. Soon after Boy marries, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a daughter named Bird. The new baby is black. As a consequence, Boy discovers that her husband and many of the other people she has come to know as family and friends are actually all white-skinned blacks who have long been passing for whites. What should Boy do with Bird? What should she do with Snow? She feels ensnared in an environment that worships whiteness. She fears Bird will be psychologically damaged if she is allowed to grow up in a black world dominated by an idolized white child. Can the issue of Bird in their lives force the family to abandon its long-held deceit? How will this all play out?
The book has such a large cast of secondary characters that I often found it difficult to keep track of them. If you read a digital version, you can always run a search on any name to help refresh your memory about any character and how he or she relates to the plot. However, if you read this book in print, I recommend that you take careful notes to aid your memory; you’ll need them. The book also contains a lot of unfamiliar black cultural references that you may need to look up on the Internet. This helped me in understanding what was going on, so I again recommend that you take the time to do this if any terms are unfamiliar to you. A lot of the new terms have to do with global ethnic fairy tale motifs.
This novel is complex. It can be difficult and confusing to read. However, as challenging as it is, it is also rewarding and well worth the effort.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2014
Disappointing. The entire book felt like it was setting up something that never came, only for it to end abruptly. There was no climax and little emotional depth. Half the time, I didn't understand what the narrator was even talking about, and had to re-read passages 2 or 3 times, and I still wasn't sure what she meant. A new storyline about a secondary character is introduced within the last 25 pages, which may have been interesting if it were fully explored and handled better, but as it is, it's just confusing. I feel like I wasted my time with this book, and it definitely didn't live up to the hype. Not recommended.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A unique take on the concept of identity, "Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel", is an interesting, three part look into the lives of three women; a mother, Boy Novak, a step-daughter, Snow Whitman, and a daughter, Bird Whitman, that involves a mythical structure, creating a loose modern day retelling of the fairy tale Snow White (emphasis on loose).
In part one we meet Boy, who is living with her sadistic father, an exterminator who plucks they eyes out of rats and uses them to find and kill other rats. He doesn't treat his daughter much better, administering daily, physical beatings and inflicting mental anguish without warning. Boy eventually flees, and settles in Flax Hill a small, New England town where she meets and marries a young widower with a beautiful daughter named Snow with whom she gets along very well. Boy becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a daughter they name Bird.
Without revealing spoilers, part two is narrated by a now 13 year old Bird and identity is cemented as the book's central theme. Much of part two consists of epistolary exchanges between Bird and Snow who are now living apart. These letters were the strongest aspect of the novel and contained many great discussions on family, loyalty, love, ethics and morality, all within the framework of identity. Both Bird and Snow emerge from these letters and strong and interesting women bound by a common history.
Boy resumes the narrative duties in part three, and here the ghosts of her past begin to intersect with her present, adding new twists to the story and from which the novel does not benefit. While the book's first two parts did seem to mesh, the additions of the third part gave the novel a scattered and incomplete feel from which it was unable to recover. I enjoyed Oyeyemi's prose, and the characters were intelligent, interesting, and well developed. But, the novel simply tries to do and to be too much and in the end, ironically, suffers its own identity crisis.