Thursday, July 17, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Copyright 2014
Riverhead Books - Fiction
Source:  ARC sent by Publisher

It was snowing when I got off the bus at Flax Hill. Not quite regular snowfall, not exactly a blizzard. This is how it was. The snow came down heavily, settled for about a minute, then the wind moved it -more rolled it, really -- onto another target. One minute you were covered in snow, then it sped off sideways, as if a brisk, invisible giant had taken pity and brushed you down.

~ p. 13, Advance Reader Copy of Boy, Snow, Bird (some changes may have been made to the final print version)

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. 

~p. 15, ARC

It was a windy morning, and the wind pushed me, and the road dragged me, and the tree branches flew forward and peeled back and broke away, and their scrawny trunks hugged each other.

~p. 59, ARC

Imagine having a mother who worries that you read too much. The question is, what is it that's supposed to happen to people who read too much?  How can you tell when someone's crossed that line?

~p. 90, ARC

I have a relationship to Boy, Snow, Bird similar to the heroine's feelings about Flax Hill at the beginning of the novel, a bit shaky.  As usual, I went into the reading without bothering to learn much beyond what I'd read at the time I accepted the book for review and mostly forgotten by the time I opened the book. I did know the title was a list of character names and I was aware of the basic storyline. I'm not entirely sure what I expected of the book but the description of young Snow, with her dark hair and lovely skin, and the book jacket comment describing Boy as an evil stepmother made it clear that Boy, Snow, Bird was in some way based on "Snow White".  I have a feeling I was anticipating something a little magical, a bit dreamy with elements of fantasy. That may explain my disappointment.

Warning!!  This review may contain spoilers.  Skip down to the recommendation line (highlighted in bold) if you are concerned.  

Boy is the name of the protagonist, an abused young lady whose father is a rat catcher in New York City. She knows nothing at all about her mother, only that her father is angry and dangerous. Although a young man named Charlie loves her, she escapes the city as soon as she's able and ends up in Flax Hill. There, Boy eventually falls in love with and marries Arturo Whitman, the father of beautiful Snow, a girl with thick, beautiful hair and dark eyes who instantly charms everyone. When Boy gives birth to their daughter, Bird, the Whitman family's secret comes to light.  They're pale blacks living as whites. Bird is clearly a black child and Boy is blonde and fair.

Boy sends Snow away, I presume because she can't bear the contrast between the two children. That was never entirely clear to me. I also never quite understood why Boy rejected Charlie, a man who truly loved her and went out of his way to show her how much he cared, for Arturo, a man whose affection was lukewarm at best. There was a moment I thought the author tried to explain it away but I just couldn't wrap my head around the concept. Did she feel like she didn't deserve Charlie? Was he too much a part of her early life?  I just don't know.

The book is written in three parts and the first portion, between descriptions of the rat catcher and the abuse of Boy, almost convinced me the book was not for me.  And, yet, now and then a strange, beautiful or just unusual sentence would jump out at me and the uniqueness of the author's style kept me going.

Unfortunately, I really feel like I would have been better off not finishing Boy, Snow, Bird. The second section's tenor was entirely different as the viewpoint changed from Boy's to Bird's. The beginning had made my skin crawl at times and unsettled me, yet there were sparkling moments. The second section was flat and lifeless.  The third is just bizarre, as a plot twist involving a transgendered character is tossed into the mix and then . . . the story ends.

In some ways, I felt like I "got" what the author of Boy, Snow, Bird was trying to accomplish. I understood the theme: The color of your skin changes the way people view you. But, I was disappointed that what began as uncomfortable yet oddly intriguing writing degenerated. And, I am completely clueless about the purpose of the transgendered character. Does the fact that the character is transgender change how Boy felt about that person? I think so. But, because the trans element was tossed in like an afterthought, even treated as if the change of gender were a mental illness as opposed to realistic feelings of gender identity, the ending just left me with question marks hanging over my head, tickling my skin. I felt like I had to brush them off my arms and step on them, then move immediately to another book to cleanse my mind. I also think the cover description of Boy as an "evil stepmother" is misleading. She doesn't mother Snow at all; she just sends her away.

Neither recommended nor not recommended - I gave Boy, Snow, Bird a 3-star rating but I've waffled over whether or not that was too high. My general feeling upon closing the book was, "What the hell was that?" I got something out of the story and yet I was confused and irritated by the ending. I think at the time I closed the book I felt like the beginning held too much promise to give the book less than an average rating. And, yet, since the ending was so immensely disappointing, I wonder if that may have been a mistake. Either way, I don't feel like I can give a recommendation or tell you to avoid it. There is something unusual about Helen Oyeyemi's writing. While I didn't love this particular story, I would not avoid her writing in the future. There are hints of possibility that are not to be ignored.

Cover thoughts:  I love the cover. The background color and juxtaposition of evil and good images (snake and rose - probably to represent Boy's treatment of Snow and Snow's innocent whimsy) make for a dazzling combination.

Because I'm gettin' old: I noticed one historical anachronism. Boy arrives at Flax Hill in 1953 and within a decade or two, one of the characters refers to a Mr. Chen as "Asian" rather than the word we used in my childhood, "Oriental". Seeing mistakes like that makes me panic about my own writing. It must be difficult to get everything right when writing historical fiction. 1953 wasn't even all that long ago, although -- just so you know -- it was before my lifetime, thankyouverymuch.

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  1. High five. We had all the same probs with this one. I wish I'd put it aside because it frustrated me so much. That first section was gold and then...the rest.

    1. Same here - shouldn't have bothered finishing it. And, yet, there were so many wonderful moments in the first section! I was not the least bit surprised to find that all my favorite quotes were within first 100 pages of the book.


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