IN REVIEW: BOY, SNOW, BIRD
Like many of Oyeyemi’s novels, Bow, Snow, Bird has some fairy tale twisted into its DNA. In this case, the main inspiration is Snow White, with its wicked stepmothers and fascination with being “fairest of them all.” Boy, Snow, and Bird are three women, connected by a complex family web. In 1953, Boy flees an abusive father in New York and goes to Flax Hill, Massachusetts, a town of artisans. There she meets Arturo Whitman and his six-year-old daughter, Snow, who is fair, beautiful, and almost alarmingly loved by her family. Boy and Arthuro marry and have another daughter, Bird, whose dark skin reveals a family secret: the Whitmans are a black family passing for white. This discovery awakens something dark in Boy that begins to dig rifts between the Whitman women. And isn’t it usually the case that the wicked stepmother is just looking out for her ugly daughter?
The book, like its title, is divided into three parts, but it doesn’t follow quite the expected pattern; the first and last sections belong to Boy, and the second section to Bird. Snow never plays the narrator. Snow is first introduced with her face “obscured by clouds of dark hair with big red flowers plaited into them … a large cookie in each hand and more in the pockets of her dress,” and the resemblance to a Disney princess doesn’t stop there. She’s revered by her family, particularly her two grandmothers, and for a reason: she’s a miracle child, the daughter of a passing black couple who doesn’t show her heritage and instead looks as white as her namesake. Yet Bird is the daughter who stays with her secret-bound family, while Snow is sent away to live with her rebellious, dark-skinned aunt. The lesser stepsister is more present in the story, her voice more immediately heard, while her sister, the would-be heroine, slips out of sight. But then, it’s difficult to look directly at Snow.
Snow is unsettling because she’s completely beloved, and she takes it completely for granted. Maybe that’s why she never speaks directly to the reader; what would someone so immensely desired have to say about herself? What role does she play, beyond being a fulcrum for other people’s wishes? Late in the book, when we actually do begin to hear Snow’s voice via a series of letters that she sends to Bird, it’s a shock to find that she has her own truth to tell. “I’ve grown up around people whose families have lived their lives without trying to invent advantages—some of them have marched and staged sit-ins, others have just lived with their heads held high,” she tells Bird. “But I’m slowly coming around to the view that you can’t feel nauseated by the Whitmans and the Millers without feeling nauseated by the kind of world that’s rewarded them for adapting to it like this.” The voice that Snow displays in her letters—wry, self-critical, fiercely aware and awake—never accompanies her actual physical presence. In person, she’s reduced to receiving gifts from adoring strangers and sighing, “Isn’t it kind of everybody?” It’s as if Snow’s beauty and charm aren’t characteristics, but limits—screens that make it impossible to see her wholeness. The three women of the book are in a constant state of narrating themselves and each other, and it’s as impossible for them to know what’s beyond their perception as it is for them to know what their actions actually reveal.
Boy, Snow, Bird weaves a profusion of small stories into its web. The bones of Snow White poke out through the novel, particularly in its fascination with mirrors. The letters that Snow and Bird write to each other form a miniature narrative, in which the sisters trade allegorical stories and experiment with different voices to narrate their own lives. Early on in the book, there is a scene in which Boy and a friend write a story together as a sort of mutual dare. The story begins:
… Something happened to me when I was ten years old. My hands began to draw distinctions between the sacred and the profane. I watched them and made notes. My left had was part of me, it belonged to me, and it only consented to touch things I considered beautiful. If Peter Pan had visited me, I’d have given him a thimble with my left hand …. My right hand was an object, it belonged to the world, and I used it to manipulate other objects.
This sense of a body or form dividing off and becoming inscrutable to its owner is embedded deep in the fabric of Boy, Snow, Bird. Boy’s pregnancy with Bird is described in terms of subsuming—”It was like quicksand. The only way to make it out alive was to stop struggling against it, to submit”—and from the beginning of her life, Bird is betrayed by her own facial features and skin. When Bird wraps herself in a blanket belonging to her mother, she finds herself in the grip of a violence intended for Boy, as if by borrowing her covering she has slipped temporarily into her skin and her identity. In her letters, Snow calls herself “a deceiver,” as though it’s immutable and as present as a limb, and indeed she does seem to be an expert at sliding seamlessly between different versions of herself. In a book bristling with smaller stories, the three main characters are each presented as bristling with different versions of themselves, some of which turn out to be versions of one another as well.
In her past work, Oyeyemi—who is Nigerian-born, British-raised, and currently residing in Prague—has often used the skeletons of horror plots to explore questions of race, otherness, and how the past resurfaces in the present on micro and macro scales. Her earlier novels have featured heavy doses of the uncanny, totems of home and family that take on horrific and spectral aspects over the course of the novels. Her debut novel, The Icarus Girl, opens with a lonely child finding her first real friend, but the warmth and mutual understanding between the two girls soon curdle into a much more sinister sympathy. White Is for Witching features a malevolent house that orchestrates horrific puppet shows for guests whom it dislikes, reserving particular punishments for those whom it considers racially unworthy. Boy, Snow, Bird, by contrast, features nothing overtly supernatural. Here, instead of ghosts, we find characters who can’t be fully seen, who seem to be missing some crucial parts of themselves. Boy, speaking of Snow: “She’s mad that I haven’t been able to love her. Maybe she’s afraid that I see something in her that she isn’t able to see for herself.” Boy’s father, speaking of Boy: “With some people the spite goes so deep, it is a thing beyond personality … you don’t want to understand me.” Boy, speaking of herself: “I don’t know what my mistakes reveal—maybe they reveal very good reasons for my having been unloved as a child.” Boy, Snow, and Bird all have trouble with mirrors. They have no reflections, or their reflections absorb them; they become obsessed with parsing what is true and what is an optical illusion. The terror of the Whitman women is that they can’t know their own wickedness, or their own goodness.
It’s difficult to know what to do with the novel’s last revelation, which deals in another kind of identity swap. In the short and somewhat overloaded final section, Boy, Snow, Bird reverts to a strange sort of naivete, suddenly placing a heavy load of narrative faith in authenticity and the idea that people can be fully explained via the things that have happened to them. “Magic spells only work until the person under the spell is really and honestly tired of it,” says one character, but it’s strange that a book that is so insightful about the long-term resonance of temporary glamours suddenly begins to put so much trust in the ability to revert back to an untouched form. The novel ends a bit jarringly, with its three titular characters on a quest to regain a rather mythical-seeming wholeness, but until then, it’s a remarkable study in fracture, fleetingness, and the cruel impossibility of seeing oneself without a mirror interposing.
Kara Miller likes giant messy novels, the Russian language, and giant messy novels written in the Russian language. She graduated from the University of Colorado.