It would be reductive to sum this book up as ‘Snow White in the ’60s with racism,’ but you could if you really wanted to. That’s the hook that caught me, after all. But really, the Snow White story is just the way in. It’s not really concerned with the same things that Snow White (or other fairy-tales) is concerned with.
Boy, Snow, Bird is not as mysterious of a title as it first appears. Boy, Snow and Bird are all characters in the novel. Boy Novak takes the ‘evil stepmother’ role, although she’s not evil. Most of the novel is narrated by her. Snow Whitman is her stepdaughter, and Bird is her daughter (whose narration makes up the rest that Boy doesn’t have).
It’s very difficult to talk about this book without spoiling it, so much so that I’m contemplating spoiling it for you. It was spoiled for me (at least, the main ‘twist’ was) and that was the entire reason I decided to pick the book up. You know what, just, here. Highlight if you want to be spoiled (just a little):
Boy marries Arturo Whitman, and Snow is his daughter, whom everybody loves. It’s only when Boy gives birth to Bird that she learns the Whitmans are light skinned African Americans passing for white, because her daughter is very clearly black.
The race relations are most definitely the most interesting part of the book, and I enjoyed the bits where Oyeyemi played around with the idea of mirrors in a more literary and metaphorical way than a fairy-tale might. What I didn’t enjoy was Boy, at least at first. I started off reading the book in hardcover but couldn’t make it past page fifty. The tone of the thing, and the absolute unpleasantness that was spending time in Boy’s head was too much for me. Boy is a troubled, negative character, and Oyeyemi’s prose is weird and aloof. It just wasn’t working for me, so I returned it to the library. I picked it up again about a month later in audiobook format, and it stuck this time, most likely because the two narrators gave Oyeyemi’s words a human presence I thought they lacked before.
Still, the novel was frustrating for me and I found myself alternating between thinking something was genius and then being totally disconnected from it. I was all set and ready to give this three stars, but the the ending was just weird. I don’t think it resolved anything that I wanted to be resolved (and I’m not talking happy endings here, just any old ending would have done). And then there’s the fate of Boy’s mother. Again, highlight for spoilers:
Boy learns that her father, the abusive man who raised her, and whom she calls the Rat Catcher, is actually a trans woman (who previously identified as a lesbian) who was raped. Boy is the result of that rape. I see what Oyeyemi was going for, since all the characters in the novel are obsessed with mirrors and reflections, and the Whitmans passing as white is a direct parallel to a woman ‘passing’ as a man. But the parallel doesn’t work, mostly because the way it’s written makes it seems like the Rat Catcher only lives as a man now because of that trauma, and not because it’s who he should have been all along. It also has the added implication that people who are trans are not legitimately the genders they choose, but are only passing, just as the Whitmans (who are very clearly portrayed as people who can’t accept their true identities). It was all extremely problematic and completely soured the rest of the book for me.
The relationship between Bird and Snow was the highlight of the novel for me, but again, there was no resolution there, just as there was no real resolution between Boy and Snow (who Boy had kicked out of the house out of fear that Bird would never be able to live a normal life with her beloved, very white sister always overshadowing her). The novel ‘ends’ with the three women setting off on a road trip to find the Rat Catcher, and I don’t know, fix her? It’s very weird.
I don’t regret having read the book, but it was too problematic for me to really enjoy myself. It was all over the place for me, and it went places I don’t think the author intended it to. Interesting to think about this time around, but won’t be reading anything else from her again.