Thursday, April 17, 2014


Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi, Riverhead Books, 2014, 308 pp

What a great year for novels 2014 is shaping up to be! This is the fourth new novel I have read this year and I have been enchanted with each read. I'm quite sure Helen Oyeyemi intended to enchant me, playing around the way she does with the Snow White fairy tale and re-imagining it as a meditation on race, beauty, and envy.

Boy is a woman who escapes a truly horrific childhood. In fact, the level of its horror is not fully revealed until the end of the book and I could never have guessed it in a million years. A pale, white-blond, brainy type with a strange relationship to mirrors, she marries a widower and becomes stepmother to a spoiled and precocious beauty named Snow. When Boy and her husband have a child, named Bird, the infant's dark skin is proof that Mr Skinner is a light-skinned African American passing for white. Boy discovers her evil side.

Quite a set up, but by the time all this has happened, I was under Oyeyemi's spell. Not worried about inconsistencies or less than fully developed characters, on the contrary I decided that in the author's mind the story made total sense and the characters were completely formed. She didn't feel the need to explain every little thing, nor did I need her to.

Sometimes I have a sort of reverse snobbery about authors who retell classics like Shakespeare plays or folk tales or, god forbid, Jane Austen books. But such is the artistry and wild abandon displayed in Boy, Snow, Bird that I was content to be duped, to marvel at the unbelievable, and to care passionately about Boy and Snow and Bird.

Helen Oyeyemi is a beautiful black woman, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants raised in middle class conditions in London and educated in the best schools. This is her fifth novel (I must read the other four), she has won all kinds of accolades, but really I think she is a wizard.

(Boy, Snow, Bird is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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