Boy, Snow, Bird was beautifully written, but I was more in love with Oyeyemi’s writing style than the story itself. This is a creative (albeit subtle) retelling of Snow White that explores racial issues in the U.S. in the ’50s. So creative, in fact, that I was confused by many aspects of this story. And on top of everything else, the lack of a climax in this story made it a lukewarm read.
It’s 1953, and twenty-year-old Boy Novak, tired of being beaten up by her father the rat-catcher, runs away from her home in Manhattan, New York to quiet Flax Hill, Massachusetts. It’s there that she becomes fascinated with the beautiful Snow Whitman and ends up marrying Snow’s father, Arturo Whitman. But when Boy gives birth to Arturo’s surprisingly dark-skinned daughter, Bird, Boy comes to the shocking revelation that the Whitmans are really light-skinned African Americans. Against everyone’s wishes, Boy decides to send six-year-old Snow away instead of Bird, and Snow and Bird must face the consequences of that decision as they grow up.
Even though this three-part story is told in first-person narratives by Boy and Bird, I still feel like I don’t really understand the characters in the ten-plus years that this story spans. It’s hard to get a grasp of Boy’s personality even though her thoughts and worries are all there on the page. Her increasingly intimate relationship with Arturo also surprised me, since it seemed like these two hated each other not in the it’s-getting-hot-in-here way, but rather, in a more aloof and detached way.
Boy’s insight into Snow’s personality also proved a surprise because of how dramatic the shift was. For Boy, Snow was an angel one moment and a devil in disguise the next – the growing annoyance Boy feels for Snow puts her in the wicked stepmother slash evil queen role fairly well, but as time passes and Snow grows up, their relationship still continued to baffle me. The two never openly discuss how they feel about each other with each other, and thus a climax is never reached.
Bird is sooooo much easier to understand compared to the other two, and I really like her narrative. At thirteen years old, she talks to spiders, crushes on her best friend Louis Chen, and wonders why her reflection doesn’t appear in the mirror sometimes. She also tries to develop a relationship with her absent sister by sending her letters, but the contents in these letters are also confusing to me.
These three characters aren’t intimate in a way families usually are, and that bothers me a bit. In fact, I feel indifferent about all of the characters’ relationships with each other because there’s always a nagging sense of distance and detachment from the way they talk to and interact with each other.
Aside from the characters, the plot also lacked spark; my feelings remained at baseline, and the only things that caught my attention were the tiny bits of magical realism and the scenes of racial discrimination. The magical realism is that thing with the mirrors, and the mirrors remain a symbol that pervades the story; I kind of get it (surfaces of mirrors and surfaces of people equals judging people by their appearance, right?) and think it’s an interesting way of emphasizing the main issue of discrimination discussed in the book. It’s also one of the few references to Snow White (aside from Snow’s name).
But that ending was what made me like the book less, because it involved a surprising – and in my opinion, unnecessary – revelation about Boy’s background, and because it ended with a cliffhanger-not-cliffhanger. (A cliffhanger-not-cliffhanger is that vague way a book ends, kind of like how a song ends by fading away with a repeating chorus – I find this more annoying than a simple cliffhanger.)
Long story short, Boy, Snow, Bird had a great theme and brilliant writing, but I didn’t get it. The characters and their relationships felt distant and unapproachable, and too often, the story felt disjointed and vague to me. I think I was also expecting a retelling that was more similar to the original Snow White, and that definitely didn’t happen.