Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
This novel is a loose modern retelling of Snow White that focuses on the point of view of the evil queen. The setting is a New England town in the 1950’s and early 60’s. Instead of a queen, Boy is a girl who runs away from an abusive parent and marries a widower with a young girl. Their fraught relationship is the focus of the book, and there is no prince or enchanted sleep. The fairy tale premise is only the bare-bones skeleton of the story, the starting point. Any reader who wants exact correspondence in her fairy tale retellings will be disappointed.
Instead, the style is the main attraction here. Oyeyemi dances on the edge between realism and magic. For example, mirrors don’t seem to behave normally around any of the three main women of the novel, but it’s unclear whether that’s a false perception or a fact. There are several dream sequences, or stories-within-the-story that grow and take on a life of their own. A couple of the more memorable of these focus on the meaning and consequences of beauty. The imagery is often violent, and the stories seem to go a step farther than I expected them to. In some cases, two characters tell the same story each in their own way, which is a fascinating way to reveal their personalities as well as the tale. This writing really captured my imagination and made the book incredibly enjoyable.
Here are some spoilers. Snow and her father are African-Americans “passing” as white. Their secret comes out when Boy has another baby, Snow’s half-sister Bird, who has darker skin. These racial issues and the way they affect the family create most of the drama of the second half of the book, culminating in a supremely uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner. Through combining this plot with the fairy tale setup and language, the novel really shows how problematic the idea of a fairy tale princess whose beauty is defined by her “skin white as snow” is in a multiracial world.
The ending is very loose and abrupt, almost as if it were leaving space for a sequel. Not much is resolved at all. I hope a second book is in the works, but there doesn’t seem to be any word out about one.