Myths and fairy tales are alternately valued for their symbolism, their potential for contemporary retellings, or for anthropological insights; but rarely as a language in themselves. Helen Oyeyemi is one of the few storytellers who seems on intimate terms with the language of myth, swims in it with apparent ease, and teases exciting possibilities from the old stories with her hypnotic command of prose. Boy, Snow, Bird is her exploration of the Snow White fairy tale, interlaced with an assortment of other myths, and culminating as a commentary on the tragic history of race in America. Despite this freighted subject matter, the tone is light and even throughout, just as in a fairy tale where wonder and horror are often recounted in an identical register. It’s a narrative approach which compels ongoing, active engagement from the reader for the clues to its heart.
Boy, Snow, Bird is largely the story of the Wicked Queen in Snow White, though in Oyeyemi’s version her wickedness is ambiguous and subject to debate. In fact, the oddly named Boy Novak, described from her own perspective as “an icy blonde,” is a sympathetic narrator almost from the start, from the moment her abuse at the hands of her father becomes apparent. The only hint that Boy has the potential for iciness is her early assertion: “I’ve always been pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to. Myself, or my father – whichever option proved most practical. I wouldn’t kill for hatred’s sake; I’d only do it to solve a problem.”
It’s New York City in the 1950s, and Boy’s father is a sociopathic rat catcher, her mother’s identity a mystery. Almost as soon as she reaches adulthood, Boy flees, boarding a random bus from Port Authority and ending up in the distant Massachusetts town of Flax Hill.
After a screwball-comedy flirtation with a widower named Arturo Whitman (no effort to hide the symbolism here), enchanted with his lovely five-year-old daughter Snow, Boy marries Arturo and has a baby. That’s the moment the story turns onto the track that was its destiny all along: the baby is black, and it is in this manner that Boy learns she is married to a black man in 1950s America. Arturo’s family have successfully passed for white, but their cover is blown by the birth of Bird. The one to suffer most from the fallout is Snow, whose whiteness makes her presence in their household unendurable for Boy. And so it is here, somewhat in defiance of the character of Boy up to this point, that the novel most clearly accommodates the contours of the fairy tale.
When Oyeyemi explores a theme, it tends to follow patterns similar to a melody rather than those of systematic analysis. Images and ideas arise, embodied in gorgeous prose, and then recur variously without necessarily arriving at a resolution. In this novel, the image that recurs most frequently is that of mirrors, with the obvious origin of the mirror in Snow White in which the wicked queen anxiously assesses the preservation and decline of her own beauty. Mirrors in Boy, Snow, Bird take on a supernatural quality, with the power both to endow and confiscate identity. Many characters wrestle with their identities, both within themselves and in a societal context – and there is a strong implication throughout that these are inextricable; that no identity is formed in solitude, and that there is no such thing as an objective identity.
The most acute representation of this idea in Boy, Snow, Bird is, unsurprisingly, in the form of a fairy tale: of a wizard who can cause a woman to become ugly by chanting “Scarecrow, scarecrow” – whereupon “the woman who heard him believed him, and the words did their work.” It was the belief of the woman herself, instilled by an observer, which destroyed her beauty.
Like the infinite reflections created by mirrors facing each other, the essentials of this concept repeat endlessly, in different ways. But it is most wrenching when applied to matters of race, when one by one black characters reveal their pain at having an identity assigned to them based on skin colour. Snow epitomizes this motif, beginning her life as a white girl in Flax Hill; once revealed to be black, she is changed entirely. The anger and pain associated with having one’s identity shaped by others reaches a crescendo in the latter half of the novel, and true to Oyeyemi’s art, raises more questions than answers.
Ilana Teitelbaum is a writer living in New York.