BOY, SNOW, BIRD by Helen Oyemi

Book Quote:

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton. I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch. I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (MAR 10, 2014)

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.” So begins the dazzingly imaginative and enigmatically-named new novel from Helen Oyeyemi.

But what happens when mirrors are not trustworthy? When Boy is really a girl? When a beautiful pale-skinned youngster actually shares the bloodline of the blackest of black individuals? When beauty is not truth and when truth is not beauty? When a mother or a grandmother is not a safe haven but something else entirely?

Helen Oyeyemi explores questions like these in her own imitable way, mixing a dose of fantasy with a dollop of reality. Her writing gifts, carefully honed in her startlingly good prior novel, Mr. Fox, are on display again here as she merges the real with the fantastical to create a canvas all her own.

The book’s curious title is a compilation of the names of three unique women: Boy, who escapes from her abusive rat-catcher father to settle in a New England town called Flax Hill; her strikingly attractive and widely treasured stepdaughter Snow; and the daughter she conceives with Snow’s father Arturo, named Bird. As the publicist’s blurb on this book reveals, Bird is “colored” since Arturo and his family have long passed for white.

The observant reader can pick up the threads of the Snow White fairy tale: the “evil” stepmother (who is perhaps more protective than evil), the removal of Snow White from the scene and particularly the “Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who’s The Fairest of Them All” query.

Who, indeed, is the fairest? Helen Oyeyemi writes, “”It’s not whiteness that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness. Same goes if you swap whiteness out for other things—fancy possessions for sure, pedigree, maybe youth too…” Or, to put another way, nothing – not race, gender, or beauty – is valuable onto itself; it is we who place the value on these attributes.

Ms. Oyeyemi sometimes overplays her hand. The narrative (told by Boy in the first and third sections and by her daughter Bird in the second section) loses a bit of steam when Bird takes over. The metaphors on race become too concrete as the author tackles the unfortunate devaluing of persons based on shade of pigment; the writing is far more effective when the reader draws his/her necessary conclusions on the tyranny of the mirror rather than being lead there.

Still, Boy, Snow, Bird is so freshly-conceived – with writing that often leverages our mythic beliefs in fairy tales and soars into our subconscious – that it still manages to beguile. Ms. Oyeyemi is comfortable shattering many of our perceptions about race, gender, appearance, and family and does a masterful job of forcing us to confront our own mirror and ask, “Is the person reflected in the mirror a true representation about who I really am?”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 15 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Hardcover (March 6, 2014)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Helen Oyemi
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


March 10, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Allegory/Fable, Class - Race - Gender, Contemporary