Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Publication Date: March 6, 2014
Length: 308 pages
Source: My own copy
The Story: Helen Oyeyemi’s most recent novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, begins with the strange childhood of a young, motherless girl with the odd name of Boy. Growing up in the Lower East Side in the 1940s, Boy lives with her abusive father, a rat catcher. In 1953, fearing for her life, Boy finds the strength to run away, and creates a new life in a small town in Massachusetts. A childhood friend pursues her and wishes to marry her, but Boy seems incapable of accepting and returning real love.
Boy marries a widower, although she knows she does not truly love him, and becomes the stepmother to his beautiful and sweet daughter, Snow. In time, Boy gives birth to a daughter of her own, whom she names Bird. The birth of Bird, however, reveals a secret that will cause serious repercussions in the lives of Boy and her family.
My Thoughts: Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel that I expected to love. It’s a re-telling (of a sort) of the fairy tale of Snow White, and I usually enjoy novels that incorporate myth and fairy tales. The themes of race, segregation, and identity are just the kind of themes that I often relish in literary fiction. Helen Oyeyemi is a young novelist whose work has been widely praised by critics, and I had been looking forward to reading one of her books.
But while I appreciated parts of the novel, Boy, Snow, Bird mostly left me cold.
The novel started out well; I was interested in Boy’s disturbing childhood and her escape from her father. But once Boy embarked upon her new life in Massachusetts, the narrative began to lose its power for me. I never felt a strong connection with Boy or any of the other characters. Boy, of course, is supposed to be damaged emotionally and thus distant in her relations with other people, but Oyeyemi doesn’t find a way to let readers into her heart. The other characters seem just as distant and often, completely indistinct.
In Part 2 of the novel, the point of view switches to that of Boy’s daughter Bird, which I found a difficult transition. A long section of letters between Bird and her half-sister Snow was dry and unsatisfying. Oyeyemi returns to Boy’s perspective in Part 3, which includes a rather shocking plot turn. This plot turn seemed out of left field and more than a little unlikely, but at least it added some spark into the narrative. But just as I felt my interest peaked—and finally some sense of connection with Boy—the novel abruptly ends.
I do think Oyeyemi is a talented writer and storyteller; maybe her best work is still ahead of her. Boy, Snow, Bird strikes me as a novel with an intriguing premise that needed more crafting to reach its potential.
Others may have a better experience with Boy, Snow, Bird than I did; perhaps it just wasn’t the novel for me.