A student first recommended Helen Oyeyemi to me when she insisted I read Mr. Fox, which was by far, one of the most fascinating books I’d been told to read by a student. I also read White is for Witching, which I particularly enjoyed as well. I can’t quite decide if Oyeyemi writes magical realism, or fairy tales, or myths, or all of those things. I like that her work is not easily categorized.
In Boy, Snow, Bird, I had no idea what the story would be about (I hadn’t read any reviews), but I immediately sunk into the narrative. It begins with Boy, who is a young girl with an abusive father who catches rats for a living. At school, she explains how her teachers didn’t trust her: “something about a girl like me writing an A-grade paper turns teachers into cops.” She is suspicious of the world and keeps to herself. At one point there’s a second person paragraph (which, oddly, works) and she writes about herself: “you don’t return people’s smiles–it’s perfectly clear to you that people can smile and still be villains.” This placing the self outside the self for examination fascinates me. It seems like Boy, Snow, Bird revolves a lot around identity. For example, there’s an interesting element of mirrors in the novel–Boy, and her daughter Bird, often don’t show up in them.
Ah yes, so Boy escapes from her father, moves to a small New England town, Flax Hill, and begins life anew with Arturo Whitman, who has a young daughter, Snow. Soon, she has a daughter, Bird, and the birth reveals a secret about her husband and his family Boy was unaware of–which leads us into another element of identity and masks in the storyline. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are a number of unexpected turns and twists in the story that serve to make it deeper, more meaningful, and more fascinating as a reader.
Boy’s daughter, Bird, narrates for a while and also has some issues with school. She claims, “school is one long illness with symptoms that switch every five minutes so you think it’s getting better or worse.” But Bird is a strong young woman who believes in doing what is right, and she is a budding journalist. As she investigates a question, she thinks: “If someone threatens to kill you for speaking up about something they’ve done, they must be feeling their guilt.”
I found this to have been one of the best books I’ve read recently–the style and writing were top notch, and the story actually surprised me a few times, something I’m finding increasingly difficult to do these days. So if you’re in the mood for something a little different, try out this 2014 book by Helen Oyeyemi.