Review: Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Note: I received this ebook from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

The beginning: That’s the first line of Boy, Snow, Bird, and doesn’t it remind you of how much you’ve missed Helen Oyeyemi? In her newest book, a girl named Boy runs away from her abusive father, a rat-catcher, to a small town called Flax Hill. There she meets a man called Arturo Whitman, and maybe she falls in love with him, and she tries not to become a wicked stepmother to his beautiful daughter, Snow.

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip down to “The whole” if you don’t want to know!): This is actually a good example of a time the benefits of reading the end are objectively evident. At the end Boy, Snow, Bird, it is revealed that the rat-catcher, Boy’s father, was actually her mother omg shocking twist, who was a queer artsy college type until she was raped, whereupon she retired to a home for girls and found that the person looking out at her from the mirror was a man, so she started acting like one in her real life. And Boy packs up her husband, daughter, and stepdaughter to go “break the spell” the rat-catcher is under. The end.

Okay. Sometimes it happens this way. Sometimes I read the end, and I think: Man, that seems disappointing. I hope the parts of the book I haven’t read make it not disappointing. And I’ll tell you right now that they usually don’t. Usually it’s that the ending isn’t good, but if you’ve read the end before you read the middle, then at least you have a good bit of time to prepare for the ending to not be so good. It won’t be that you reach the very end and get suddenly, abruptly, enormously disappointed.

Not to say that the ending of Boy, Snow, Bird is suddenly and enormously disappointing. Thematically, the reveal at the end works fine — it’s very much in keeping with the book’s themes of identity and fear, and the image clusters with mirrors keep right on coming. It’s dicey, though, in terms of tone and plot, and it’s hella dicey as a portrayal of gender nonconformity.

The whole: Oh, I’ve missed Helen Oyeyemi. She seems to just keep getting better and better at this business of putting books together. Boy, Snow, Bird has all the matter-of-fact strangeness of her past books, but it feels more carefully assembled than some of her earlier work. Going back through for quotations from it, I keep finding great little bits of foreshadowing and parallel imagery that I missed as I was reading it the first time.

The theme of not being exactly what you look like (of mirrors — literal and metaphorical — being unreliable) runs through the whole book and all of its characters, so that you can never feel confident that what you’re looking at is true. Oyeyemi has no stake in resolving reader discomfort about what’s real; rather, she insists that the reader recognize that reality is flexible, subjective, ever-changing — unreliable.

As for Flax Hill itself, I was on shaky terms with it for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner. I kept passing park benches and telephone booths and entrances to alleyways that I was absolutely certain hadn’t been there the evening before.

The writing is gorgeous: Helen Oyeyemi has a very particular way of writing that is inimitable and that I love. Here’s some advice Snow receives:

When something catches your attention just keep your attention on it, stick with it ’til the end, and somewhere along the line there’ll be weirdness. I’ve never tried to explain it to anyone before, but what I mean to say is that a whole lot of technically impossible things are always trying to happen to us, appear to us, talk to us, show us pictures, or just say hi, and you can’t pay attention to all of it, so I just pick the nearest technically impossible thing and I let it happen. Let me know how it goes if you try it.

And a description of Snow:

If Snow was ever worried, if any anxieties ever disturbed her for longer than a day, she rarely showed it. She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future, but didn’t want to brag about it.

And this just because it made me smile:

Both Gee-Ma and Grammy Olivia have their funerals and coffins and burial plots all paid for, only Grammy Olivia also has a guest list for her funeral and strict instructions that anybody who isn’t on the list can’t come in. This makes Bird’s dad laugh and sigh at the same time and intrigues Bird, because it suggests Grammy Olivia is worried about unsavory characters from her past showing up to damage her reputation.

The ending, as I said above, was troubling from an ideological standpoint, but never mind. I just won’t read the ending next time. I’ll stop early, when Boy gets the black eye that she says is from falling over. I can do that. I do it for Moulin Rouge all the time. The big show ends, the curtain falls, THE END. Or My Fair Lady: “Goodbye, Professor Higgins. You will not be seeing me again.” THE END.

White Is for Witching remains my sentimental favorite of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, but I don’t think there’s much question that Boy, Snow, Bird is the best of her books so far — polished, elegant, unmerciful.

American cover

American cover

British cover

British cover

Cover report: I’d have done something with mirrors, if it were me. I like the way the British cover addresses coloring, which is such an issue in Boy, Snow, Bird, although the rest of the cover feels like a nonsequitur. I hate the colors and the design of the American cover. British cover wins.

16 thoughts on “Review: Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

  1. I have to admit I have hated looking at this book because I am so terrified of snakes. The British cover wins by a landslide for me. I will have to get my hands on that one if I want to read it. I can’t imagine having the American one lying around ready to jump out at me.

  2. You are very right about the ending being dicey. I thought the image of the rat catcher as a woman looking in the mirror and seeing a man was creepy though I understood it. I can see this book as a movie, can you?

    Hands down the British cover wins because of the coloring and cleverness of it though I do love the snake.

      • Whoa, I definitely did not even realize the coloring thing on the British cover. I feel dumb now, but how clever of them!

        I am with you both on the dicey-ness of the ending, as I think we have all discussed on each other’s reviews ;-) Why was it so important that Snow was there, too? Because she also pretended to be someone/something that she was not?

  3. There’s a new Helen Oyeyemi? I had no idea!!! Thank God for you, Jenny, otherwise I’d never have known. (Although I accept you have other wonderful qualities in addition to providing an information service about Helen Oyeyemi novels.)

  4. And I’ve just remembered my long-ago resolution to read more Helen Oyeyemi. I skipped over the bit about the end, but the rest of it sounds wonderful (and I’m perfectly willing to pretend the book ends somewhere other than the actual end if necessary, so that’s all right.) Library request: placed.

  5. Yes to My Fair Lady ending there! Thanks to blogger reviews I’ve put this on my list, I’m not sure I’d have heard of it otherwise, and I like the way it’s a fairytale but not. Mirrors do seem the obvious choice for a cover, though, that said, the American cover would look better with a different background colour.

  6. I am so eager to read this book. I haven’t read any of Oyeyemi’s works so your loving them encourages me to bump those books up. I will have to read White is for Witching first.

  7. I am unacquainted with Helen Oyeyemi and it sounds like that needs to change – I love the quotes you include. I appreciate how you can forgive an otherwise good story for having a problematic ending. I don’t think I’m as mature about it – I dwell on it and let it sour the whole shebang. Thanks for the introduction to a new author!

  8. This is not the kind of book that usually attracts me, but I listened to an interview with her on NPR last week and immediately put this on my TBR. I cannot wait to read it even more so now that I have read your review. I see a trip to the library in the near future.

  9. This is the only book I managed to read on my trip and I am still thinking about it… It was the first time I had read Oyeyemi actually, so there is that!

  10. I really loved this book! I read it recently and reviewed it on my blog. I agree with you that the end had some ideological problems (“breaking” the “spell”? hmm….) BUT the beginning and middle made up for the slight misstep. This was actually my first Oyeyemi book and now I’m looking forward to reading more!

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