This book caught my eye at an indy bookstore about two years ago. I picked it up and a friend of mine said, “That’s a good book. I liked it.” This, for me, is the best endorsement of a book there is. No, I didn’t buy it. I’m cheap, sorry. BUT! When it showed up on my book club’s list for September, I was pumped and snatched up my library copy and got to reading.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Summary from Goodreads:
In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
The summary actually explains some of the book better than I was able to understand it on my own. Huh, maybe I should start reading those. Though not reading it made it a surprise for me when Bird was born dark-skinned. I wasn’t expecting that and it as a good twist to the book. I liked the first part that Boy narrated. Her story was fun to me and it wasn’t until Bird started narrating that we got the sense of magical realism, something I routinely dislike in books. Alas, this was another time I just couldn’t jump on board with the magical realism in Bird’s word. Though some of it can easily be attributed to a young girl’s imagination, it was a bit much for me. I was intrigued at the end with the final twist (that I’m not going to say) but I thought Oyeyemi ended the book really suddenly without getting to talk about it much. The ending was very abrupt to me and didn’t wrap up the story much at all. I still feel like I should be able to pick the book up and keep reading a while longer. That was really disappointing to me.
With a few instances of the supernatural, I found the characters very grounded, especially Arturo and Snow. Bird and Boy were a lot alike with their heads slightly in the clouds. I liked Snow a lot and I kept hoping she would narrate at least the final part of the book. I’d say she was my favorite though Arturo was the most interesting. He lived his entire life pretending to be someone he wasn’t for acceptance and because his mother decided he would live that way. I think that’s so sad. Maybe he would have rather live as a black man or maybe it was what he wanted. He didn’t have a choice. He didn’t put up much fuss when Snow is sent away which surprised me. I guess he was more worried about keeping who he had and could cope with giving up who he used to have. I felt so bad for Snow. It made me hate Boy who I’d really liked up until that point.
Snow seemed a victim of circumstance and privilege to me. She didn’t do anything to make Boy mad, at least as far as I could see. And when she was living with her Aunt and Uncle, she had to relearn her identity and how she fit into the world. That would be so difficult. I think she turned out wonderfully, especially considering the special treatment she always seemed to get. I found it odd everyone loved her and wanted to see her, but no one really wanted to talk to her. She was someone they wanted to look at and that was all. I think her father and grandmothers were the only ones who didn’t feel that way about her. The poor thing.
If the magical realism in Bird’s story can be attributed to an overactive imagination, I can deal relate to her. I was always inventing people and monsters when I was a girl. I found reasons to be brave in my invisible friends when I needed to and heard monsters under my bed when I wanted my mom to come in and lull me to sleep. I think a lot of the things she said can be attributed to being lonely. She had no sister to keep her company and it sounds like Louis was her only friend and one she made later in life. She was aimless.
I liked Boy’s story before she married Arturo. The Rat Catcher was interesting and her budding relationship with Mia was interesting to me. Boy was independent and strong and I really liked her. She seemed to be searching for something and I couldn’t tell if she’d found it in Arturo but it was still fun to read.
Bird’s story did not do it for me, unfortunately. I wanted to like her but her voice was too childish for me to enjoy sandwiched between Boy’s mature storyline. If it was more grown-up, it would have been unbelievable so I’m not sure what I would recommend doing in this case. It seemed almost like two different stories because the voices were so different, a little reminiscent of Cloud Atlas. I would have liked to get Snow’s POV instead because she would have a slightly more mature voice.
I think having the voice of Snow or Bird was necessary in this book about identity. Boy didn’t have to see herself as an outcast or a person of suspicion the way her daughter, step-daughter, and husband did. The family was outed when Bird was born but instead of sending her away as Arturo’s sister had been sent away, she sent Snow to live with her aunt. Boy blew the secret out of the water, having no problem doing it. But when her own secret was blown out of the water, was she brave enough to face it? Unfortunately, we don’t know because the book ended so quickly. I got the impression she was going to face Frank, but we can’t be too sure. Again, I wish there was more so I could judge Boy on her bravery in facing situations like the one she created.
Writer’s Takeaway: Changing narrators can be a challenge, especially when the two are drastically different like Boy and Bird. There are some books I’ve read where it works, and some where it falls flat. This one didn’t work for me. I think the more similar the narrators, the easier it is. I’m thinking of Silver Sparrow or Eleanor & Park which I loved. These two were too different for the novel to feel fluid and coherent.
An up-and-down read for me. Three out of Five stars.
Until next time, write on.
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi | The Writes of Women
Boy, Snow, Bird (Book Review) | Liu’s Views
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi | The California Journal of Women Writers
‘It’s a stonker’ – Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi | Bookmunch