I found this beauty of a book in the library and just had to check it out when the cover transfixed my eyes. And with already having read Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours in the previous month, I was more than ready to pick up this tale.
In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
I feel like saying that Boy, Snow, Bird is a retelling of Snow White is quite confusing as it’s barely that. I mean, sure there are some nods to the original tale, however, less than you would anticipate. I ended up liking the book more for its take on beauty, vanity, and race.
Speaking of, I’m going to continue with the positive aspects of this book, and then towards the end discuss something that really made me feel at unease.
- The writing knocked me out of the park. Oyeyemi has exactly the kind of writing style I love i.e. specific as hell.
Just to share some of the love:
“She’s tall too, tall in a way that you only really notice at certain moments. The statues of Greek gods were built two and a half times the size of the average human being; I read that in a book Miss Fairfax lent me. The book describes the magnification as being small enough for the figure to remain familiar, but large enough to make you feel mighty strange standing near it. You sense some imminent threat, but common sense tells you there’s no danger, so you don’t run away. You keep a distance that appears to be a respectful one, and you don’t run away, just keep hovering on the point of doing so.”
“Do I look forty?”
“Forty years old?” I asked, trying to buy time.
“Yes, forty years old.”
Her eyes flicked up toward the rearview mirror. I was sitting in the backseat because she doesn’t like to have anyone sitting next to her while she is driving. She says it makes her feel crowded in.”
- Boy, Snow, Bird was a quick read once invested in the storyline ( about half-way through, for me).
- I picked this up when I really needed a distraction from real life — and it did its job perfectly.
- Sisterly-love. I LOVED how the author took the time to really develop the friendship between the two sisters. Sisterhood is such an important topic for me, and I always appreciate an author that tackles it with the utmost precision and love.
- The magical realism had me enamoured till the end.
- The head-on discussion of race.
- All the relationships and people that get connected and explained towards the end thrilled me. I loved how something or someone that was mentioned in the first half would reappear towards the end.
- … I tried to keep it short, but I have to include these next two quotes that have taken over my life:
“I’d recently come across a proverb about not speaking unless you’d thought of something that was better than silence. So I kept typing.”
“No revelation is immediate, not if it’s real. I feel that more and more.”
Ok, now that I’ve got all the ravings out of my system, onto the negatives: I mainly only have one thing to discuss, which is that ending…
This next passage is taken from this article I found that perfectly summed up the events that were written high-key problematically: “In the final pages of the novel, we learn that Boy’s father, Frank Novak, was at one point known as Frances Novak. Frances was a promising graduate student doing advanced research in psychology when she was raped by an acquaintance, at which point she abandoned her work and began to live as a man. Unfortunately, Frances became pregnant as a result of the rape, and it is implied—though not stated outright—that it was in large part this confluence of circumstances that led to Frank’s brutal mistreatment of Boy. When Boy learns the details of her birth, she rounds up Snow and Bird and heads off for New York, determined to “break the spell” holding Frances captive and thus undo the damage she herself has wrought in her dealings with Snow and Bird.
Based on this brief synopsis, one might reach any or all of the following unfortunate conclusions:
- Transgenderism is the result of trauma.
- Transgenderism is something that can (and should) be “cured.”
- Being [transgender] causes you to turn into an abusive sociopath and shove starving rats in your child’s face.”
I don’t even have words for that ending. This is the one time a book has left me completely speechless, and not in a good way either. The way Oyeyemi characterised Frankes Novak becoming Frank Novak just felt completely offensive. And I’m utterly disappointed with the author for making Novak’s decision seem like a plot twist that appeared in the last ten or so pages. It’s such a harmful take on an important and more than often underrepresented topic in literature. Instead, I’d recommend giving Coffee Boy by Austin Chant a read for its positive trans representation by an own voices author.
So I’m not sure what to think of Boy, Snow, Bird. If it weren’t for that harmful representation, I would’ve easily praised this book for its take on race, but yeah… tearing down one group while voicing another doesn’t work for me.