Note (contains spoilers): As you may or may not be aware, some readers have felt that the ending of Boy, Snow, Bird is transphobic. Try as I might, I couldn’t entirely make my own thoughts on this matter jibe with the rest of what I wanted to say in my review (which in and of itself may say something about the disjointed feel of the last 20 or so pages of the novel). In any case, I have largely elected to leave the ending of the book untouched in this review. Rest assured, though, that I plan on writing a follow-up post that will tackle the ending in more detail than anyone apart from myself would probably like.
Cross Angela Carter and Toni Morrison and you might get something like Boy, Snow, Bird—a very loose reworking of “Snow White” that uses the fairytale as the refracting lens through which ideas of everything from race to beauty to identity are filtered and destabilized. It’s an illustrious literary tradition, and it’s one that Helen Oyeyemi almost—almost—lives up to. But while the novel stumbles in its final pages, its missteps cannot entirely overshadow its nuanced portrait of familial relationships forged and broken in the crucible of mid-twentieth century race relations.
Boy, Snow, Bird begins in 1950s New York, but it doesn’t stay there long—just long enough for the eponymous Boy Novak to run away from her abusive father (or, as she dubs him, “the rat catcher”). Boy ultimately settles down in Flax Hill, Massachusetts, where she meets and begins dating local widower Arturo Whitman—a history professor turned jewelry maker with a preternaturally poised and beautiful young daughter named Snow. Boy and Arturo marry in due course, and all seems to be going well until Boy’s daughter Bird is born, “safe and well, and dark.”
Bird’s arrival meets with varying degrees of acceptance amongst the Whitmans—now publicly outed as fair-skinned African-Americans. It is also at this point that Boy becomes the wicked stepmother of fairytale fame, sending Snow away to live with an aunt because she cannot bear the contrast between the sisters, nor the different reactions they elicit. The story then jumps ahead in time and switches narrators; the latter half of the novel is told almost entirely by a teenage Bird as she attempts to reconnect with her estranged half-sibling. There is, however, still one more surprise in store, and it comes in the form of a revelation about Boy’s own past.
As this summary suggests, Oyeyemi’s take on “Snow White” has more to do with inspiration than adaptation—the parallels between the two stories are oblique, and often a matter of recycling old motifs to new effect. And while there is a distinct strangeness to the novel, it never quite reaches the level of even magical realism. Whatever there is of the supernatural in Boy, Snow, Bird exists around the edges of the story, seen only as it vanishes. The effect is both mesmerizing and wildly unnerving—nowhere more so, perhaps, than in Boy’s uncanny encounter with a blood-stained doppelgänger as she walks to work one morning:
There was a lot of blood. Dark, dark, red. She had done something, or something had been done to her. “I don’t know what to do,” she said, and took a step back, silently asking me to go to her there on the other side of the hill, but it wasn’t clear what she was or what she’d done and I said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and I walked faster than I had before…“Come here, come here and I’ll tell you everything,” she laughed, right beside me, not at all out of breath. I wasn’t as scared as I could have been—the main thing was to get away from her—but my thoughts ran with me.
What could you be, what could you be
Some future vision, will I go home this week, next week, the week after, strike suddenly, get the rat catcher back at last
What have you done Boy
Am I going to do the same, do I deserve her, whatever she is, did I call her to me somehow
Please go, go away
If this is the novel’s strangest and most literal instance of doubling, though, it is far from the only one. Doubles and reflections are everywhere—in the mirrors Boy comes to distrust, in Snow’s picture-perfect resemblance to her deceased mother, and, most of all, in the complex and often strained relationships that tie Boy, Snow, and Bird together. Because while Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel about race, it is also, more broadly, a meditation on the nature and source of personal identity. Snow herself exists largely as a kind of cipher—a blank page onto which other characters project their expectations. As Boy says, “If Snow was ever worried, if any anxieties ever disturbed her for longer than a day, she rarely showed it…Sometimes I think we needed her to be like that and she obliged.”
And yet it is ultimately Snow who seems to have the more stable sense of self, identifying with her African-American heritage and saying, of her mysteriously disappearing reflection, “It’s a relief to be able to forget about what I might or might not be mistaken for. My reflection can’t be counted on, she’s not always there but I am, so maybe she’s not really me.” There is, in Boy, Snow, Bird, something dangerously alienating about the experience of looking at oneself; as Bird says, narrating her life in the third person, “Looking at this from the outside makes me afraid, as if I’m not Bird at all, and never was.” It’s a lesson Boy herself learns almost too late, and even then, she says, “There are still days when I can only work out whether or not I’m upset by looking at my face.”
It is this self-splitting—the ability to recognize oneself only as one is recognized by others—that forms the basis for much of the novel’s conflict, even as Oyeyemi acknowledges its attractions. As Arturo’s father Gerald notes, the Whitmans’ decision to pass as white was largely born of their desire to see their children succeed. It’s a compelling justification, but as his daughter Clara points out, it’s far from the only way of looking at the problem: “Can you really mean it, Pa, that all folks have to do is look the part? Does Viv get no credit at all from you for working damn hard and being good at what she does, plain and simple?”
Thematically, these same concerns carry over into the novel’s final pages. In what we learn of Boy’s parentage, we are confronted once again with the insidious way that violence and hatred can saturate identity from the outside in, twisting us into what others fear us to be and making us strangers to ourselves. Unfortunately, these concerns take the form of a plot twist that is jarringly unexpected and—perhaps—problematic. While an unsettled ending might be just the thing needed to close out a novel like this one, that openness does not mesh well with the subject matter Oyeyemi tackles in these last few pages; there is, simply put, not enough time to handle the topic with the kind of nuance and compassion it demands, nor even to fully explicate it. The result is an ending that feels both narratively arbitrary and, depending on how one reads it, either clumsy or offensive in its treatment of sensitive material.
The extent to which the weakness of Boy, Snow, Bird’s ending detracts from its earlier brilliance will, I suspect, vary greatly from one reader to the next. For me, nothing could entirely erase my earliest impressions of the novel—the deft, imaginative interweaving of fantasy and brutal reality, and the charming abrasiveness of Boy as a narrator (of her job as an usherette: “I wasn’t even really watching the movie. It was one of those ones they call screwball comedies, where people mislead and ill-treat each other in the most shocking and baffling ways possible, then forgive and forget about it because they happen to like the look of each other. Only they call it falling in love”). It’s fitting that Boy, Snow, Bird doesn’t give its readers a fairytale ending; I just wish it gave us a different one.