Once upon a time there was a girl named Boy Novak. She grew up in New York, raised by her father Frank, who is a rat catcher and not too pleasant to boot. But then she left home, traveling to the small town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts, just outside of Worcester. Once there, she found that she didn’t quite fit in, as everyone had a specialty, but eventually she found company in a band of outsiders – Mia, the smart one, and Webster, the pretty one. And eventually she was courted by a kind man, Arturo Whitman, a package deal that includes his stern mother Olivia, and his daughter, Snow. But the family has a secret, revealed when their daughter is sent away, and one of the daughters is sent away. Is Boy the heroine of this story or the wicked stepmother villain?
So yes, this month we bit from the apple that is Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists. The first thing we decided is that the connections to Snow White are more subtle than the book's copy promised. I think in this case, we would have been excited to discover the connections, but by being promised that this was a contemporary retelling of Snow White, we imagined a story that would hew closer to the fairy tale.
Speaking of flap copy, we had a bit of a discussion about the revelations about the first plot twist. How fair was this revelation? I read somewhere that we generally think we don't like hearing about plot twists in advance, but we often like a story more knowing the twist. About a quarter of the reviews danced around the twist, while the others took it as intrinsic to the review. And in fact, without the twist, what exactly are you writing about? So yes, the SPOILER is going to be revealed here, which you'd likely only miss if someone tore the cover off Boy, Snow, Bird first or set up your ebook to skip over any descriptive copy. And that spoiler is that the family Boy has married into is passing as white.
To a certain extent, I was reminded by Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage, which had several reversals, not unlike the ones that unfolded in the story, but in that case, the book really was trying to upend reader's expectation,s while Oyeyemi is specifically interested in the concept of "passing." This theme plays out several times, most amusingly by Boy's journalist friend, whose big breakthrough story is as a brunette who puts on a blonde wig and sees how differently she is treated.
The middle section of the story is told through letters between the two half-sisters, Snow and Bird, so one could also consider the story at least partially an epistolary novel. What through me in this section, which is really the only place where we get a perspective other than Boy’s, is that Snow really didn’t seem to have any malice towards Boy for sending her to live with her Aunt Clara. For yes, the wicked stepmother (Boy) sent one of the daughter's away, not to dwarves, but to relatives.
Here are some interesting reviews. Porohista Khakpour notes in The New York Times Book Review, that despite her rejection of the Columbia MFA program, her work places her squarely on the cerebral side of storytelling: "“For years I saw her as something of a literary mystic, reading her with a mixture of awe, confusion and delight, but only now do I feel we’re at a place we can properly receive her, and she’s ready for us too.” Later on she notesthat “She (Oyeyemi) uses the ‘skin as white as snow’ ideal as the departure point for a cautionary tale on post-race ideology, racial limbos and the politics of passing.” Note that the Times does not use the serial comma here, but I have a great desire to add one.
Helen Oyeyemi talked to Arun Rath about Boy, Snow, Bird on Weekend All Things Considered. On passing: “It meant a boost in the social standing. It meant this curious thing where in order to be yourself and to have people leave you alone, you need to pretend to be someone else.” And in a sense, Oyeyemi was doing for Snow White what Gregory Maguire did for The Wizard of Oz: “I wanted to rescue the wicked stepmother. I felt that, especially in Snow White, I think that the evil queen finds it such a hassle to be such a villain." And she talks about why her heroine is a bookseller.
And of course she’s a bookseller!
In the Washington Post, Ron Charles contrasts Oyeyemi's work with Aimee Bender, calling the former "surrealism" and the latter subscribing to a model he coins "magical deniability. "When she mentions giants or unicorns or talking spiders, she’s only talking metaphorically – right? – but the atmosphere of fantasy lingers over these pages like some intoxicating incense.” He compares the book to Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child, and I have to say, up till this moment, I did not know that The Snow Child was based on the Snow White story. I thought it was based on a Russian fairy tale. Were the two of one origin? Go figure.
Playing off the fairy tale theme, Alex Clark in The Guardian called Boy's father, Frankie, a reverse Pied Piper who drives people away, rather than attracting them. Here's where the Hitchcock references were called out: “Early on, Boy tells us about her white-blond hair, her black eyes and her high forehead - put it together with her surname and you come up with Vertigo, that terrifying exploration of disguise and duplicity, in which Kim Novak plays twin roles. Like Hitchcock, Oyeyemi is interested not merely in what happens when you attempt to pass for someone else, but in the porous boundaries between one self and another.” Not too many reviewers picked up on these Vertigo references, so I asked someone connected to the publication if this was on purpose and she said yes, Oyeyemi is a big fan of Hitchcock.
And finally, Laura Miller in Salon compares Oyeymi's work to that of the late Angela Carter.
So what did the book club think? A few attendees were big fans of the book, but many found it more interesting than lovable.There is really great source material and lots of conversation points. It was definitely a good discussion, but I definitely think it's for a more adventurous or sophisticated group, or one like ours, which is not just adventurous and sophisicated, but one where the leader (in this case me) says "this is what we're reading and we'll all be the smarter for it."
Next up, a wrap-up of our discussion of Brian Morton's Florence Gordon.
Giving the Gift of Reading
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