The second from my Marina Warner reading list: a magical realist novel drawing on fairy tale imagery to tell a story about identity in mid-twentieth century America. I loved this. It’s a slight, easy-to-read little thing on first appearance, but the layers are constructed with great care and detail, so the closer you look, and the more you reassess, the more you see how cleverly Oyeyemi has tricked you into thinking this is a fairy tale, when it is in fact nothing of the sort. I’d have liked, perhaps, a more straightforward take on fewer sources, as the various references and possibilities seem to get out of hand from time to time, but there a lot to enjoy here nonetheless.
Boy, Snow, Bird is written in three not-quite-even parts as the story of Boy Novak, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, and that of her daughter, Bird. The women speak in the first person, Bird largely through a diary and a series of letters exchanged with her half-sister, Snow, and Boy in the more traditional, direct manner. Boy is probably best described as the book’s protagonist, because her sections are longer, and it is her perspective on things that we get, even if she’s also a difficult, aloof type of protagonist. She reminded me in some ways of Lucy Snowe in Villette: she makes herself small and does herself down, but she’s clearly a striking presence, and it’s not the strange things that happen around her — visions of herself with bloodied hands, for instance — that seem jarring, rather the everyday and mundane becomes uncanny when she interacts with it. She’s quite an average young woman of the time, with no specific skill set or interests. She thinks of herself as frigid, and seems to have an odd relationship with mirrors, but these things don’t have to have magical causes… Boy is also, in fact, a model of the wicked stepmother, though she performs no act of great evil in the story. By making her the voice through which we enter Oyeyemi’s world, we are grounded from the very beginning in the knowledge that dysfunctional fairy tale families represent grimly realistic miseries: Boy is the only child of a man, the rat-catcher, who abuses her verbally and physically, treating her as something evil so that she comes to suspect that perhaps she is. Hence she is shy of her reflection, but also seems to share a private joke with it; she is frigid and unable to deal with an apparently perfect love because she has been punished relentlessly for pretending too much and not enough.
The warning portents weigh heavy through much of the early part of the book. Escaping her father, Boy seems to wander through a magical portal, following two women to the safe haven of a hostel in Flax Hill. We are not sure whether there is something unreal about Boy or about the place, as she struggles to find work, friends and love in her new home. The man she’s fascinated by, Arturo, is a gruff, bear-like figure; woodsmen roam the boundaries of Flax Hill; an old woman with no first name runs a mysterious bookshop. But the real world casts its light against all the strange details, most vividly in the form of Mia Cabrini: a self-possessed woman in pursuit of a career in journalism. Mia grounds Boy in a way that her more traditional friend, Fletcher, cannot quite manage to do, being too different, coming from a world of diets and society pages and perfect weddings.
Despite her inability to say the words ‘I love you’ to Arturo, Boy marries him — partly as she lies under the spell of Arturo’s angelic daughter, Snow. Snow’s mother died shortly after childbirth, but the child is perfect in behaviour and looks, and everyone in Flax Hill dotes on her, including Boy. This changes when Boy and Arturo’s child is born: Bird reveals the family secret, that Arturo’s family are black. Boy is shocked but delighted with her child, however she grows fiercely protective of Bird when Arturo’s parents reject her, initially trying to blame Boy and suggesting she had an affair. The ‘worship’ of whiteness that this Southern family — and the family of Arturo’s dead wife — cling to repulses Boy, and casts Snow in a new light for her. The uncomprehending, blameless child is sent away to stay with her Aunt — Clara, who is also never seen or spoken of in Flax Hill, because she, too, ‘betrays’ the family by her appearance. This moment of cruelty towards Snow, and Boy’s hardness towards her, has enough of the fairy tale’s original impact for us to recoil from Boy, just at the point at which the narrative switches over to give Bird a voice.
Bird, too, has a strange relationship with mirrors: sometimes they don’t show her. Hardly surprising, when half of her family seems not to want to acknowledge her existence. She’s a precocious child — for all Oyeyemi’s beautiful imagery and clever phrasing, things suffer a little for having too much of one very distinctive voice (Boy’s or Oyeyemi’s, or a mixture of the two), rather than their own individuality. People speak in delicately crafted phrases and metaphors that convey wonderfully rich meaning and imagery, but that don’t always sound like the way people actually talk to each other. Still, it’s important to have the idea of Bird’s perspective: she’s able to bring about something of a reconciliation between Snow and Boy, circumventing her mother’s defenses and forging her own relationship with a sister she barely knows.
By the end, the ominous, magical atmosphere has shifted. The old rat-catcher brings some of it to Flax Hill, with a syringe that may or may not have existed, and Bird experiences it hidden in the thick folds of the flag Boy was given by a young love, but in Boy’s final section of narrative the real world comes back into focus. Another hidden identity is revealed, not by spells or enchantments, but by Mia Cabrini’s dogged research. I have mixed feelings about the ending, as I think I see what Oyeyemi was aiming for — ‘she wanted to come back’ — but it’s a topic that deserved more space in the story if it was going to be handled with the nuance it deserves. Mrs Fletcher has become Alecto, Snow’s day job is mundane PI work, Bird’s reflection has reconciled itself to her, and magic is just something that family hopes to perform on those who are its own, to let them know that they don’t have to be alone.
There are so many more details I’d love to recount — in a paranoid, enchanted atmosphere ‘we all look the same to you, don’t we?’ — but then the book is full of them. At first when I finished I was a little torn at the determined realism of everything, but having thought about it some more, I think it was actually very beautifully and effectively balanced against the fantastical elements. Boy and Arturo’s relationship ends up in a particularly warmly evoked place. The book does sprawl a little through its references though, and maybe loses some of its raw power to the maintenance of mystery, and the eagerness to bring in such varied elements of fairy tale imagery. Sticking to one or two reference points, like the main Snow White story, might have made things more effective, holding the plot together whilst still leaving room for all of Oyeyemi’s eloquent considerations of race, gender and identity. That’s no great criticism of the whole though, and I’m certainly going to look up more of Oyeyemi’s writing.