Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Review: Bird, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, BirdBoy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In theory, I like fairy tale retellings. I say "in theory" because I've read too many that disappointed me. Still, I'd heard good things about Boy, Snow, Bird, a take on the Snow White tale, and it seemed like a good concept to go by.

Boy Novak escapes her abusive father in New York City in the 1940's and winds up in tiny Flax Hill, Massachusetts. She has some trouble fitting in, but eventually finds a job she likes, and a man she could marry. His name is Arturo Whitman, and he has a daughter named Snow, through his deceased wife, Julia. Boy marries Arturo, and soon after gives birth to a dark-skinned baby girl she names Bird. It turns out, the Whitmans are white-passing. Most of them, at least. Arturo's sister, Clara, is dark-skinned. The family urges Boy to send Bird to be raised with her aunt. Instead, Boy sends Snow, seeing something in the girl that makes her fear for her daughter.

The narrative skips over thirteen years, then has us catching up through Bird's perspective. Otherwise, it's told through Boy's, which makes it hard to blame her as the evil stepmother. Bird's reaction, on hearing her mother described as such, is puzzlement. She watches her mother for signs of it, and ultimately dismisses the claim. The crux of the story is in why the person would accuse her of it in the first place.

Mirrors are a recurring theme in this book, as in the original Snow White tale. Boy is entranced by reflective surfaces, which Arturo initially takes for vanity. Snow and Bird write back and forth, and briefly discuss Bird's quirk of sometimes not seeing herself reflected in a mirror. Snow writes back that the same thing happens to her. The day Boy decides to give Arturo a chance, she's just had a vision of herself, reflected, hands covered in blood. Bird has a talent for mimicry, a reflection of a person's voice. And characters serve as reflections of traits others possess. Bird proves a reflection of the dark skin in the Whitmans' blood, and her grandmother can hardly bear to look at her for it. Snow reflects back people's best traits, and people love her for it.

I loved the language in this book. Sentences flow into dialogue which flows together, despite each character's distinct voice. Boy and her friends have a back-and-forth banter that evokes movies of that era, or Peter S. Beagle dialogue. Boy and her mother-in-law have a tight, formal presentation. Bird's dialogue skips along merrily, full of laughter and curiosity. Snow's is mild and checked, like she's always making sure she said the right thing.

Characters can be hard to keep track of, especially with the shift in perspectives. Bird knows several people Boy doesn't, but she also knows people by their last names (Mrs., Ms., Mr.), while Boy was on a first-name basis. I kept wondering if I was supposed to know the people Boy was talking about.

I also spent most of the book puzzled about people's motivations. I think the point of the book was to slowly reveal Boy's inner workings, but she makes some choices that totally baffled me. When Bird hears that her mother is evil, I wasn't as quick as she was to dismiss the claim. Some of her motives really do seem to be manipulative or spiteful, until the very end.

The book didn't end where I expected. It seems like the most interesting event is just gearing up when it breaks off. Except, this is Boy's story, and the fact that she takes those steps is all the reader needs to know.

As a fairy tale retelling, I'd call this book a success. It had its reason for using the Snow White framework, and it had a new story to tell within it, beyond just giving the evil stepmother a chance to give her perspective. I liked what Oyeyemi did with it. This is beautifully written.

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