Monday, 6 April 2015

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

This was the book Alison selected for our book club last month, and when we got to the meeting, she'd almost finished it. I asked if she'd gotten to the big surprise in the last chapter, and she thought for a second and said "Maybe?" I said that meant she hadn't. If she had, she would know. So there were some spoilers that night, although I'll try to avoid spoilers as I write this.

Boy, Snow, Bird is a riff on the tale of Snow White, about the three women named in the title - Boy, the daughter of an abusive ratcatcher in New York, who runs away to a small town and eventually marries a widower there. He has a beautiful fair daughter named Snow. But when Boy has a child, Bird, her skin is much darker, revealing that Boy's husband and his family have been passing for white in the North for years.

Given that that is the premise, this book is actually less focused on race than I expected. Oyeyemi makes the point before Boy is even married, let alone pregnant, that she doesn't "see race." She invites the three black teenagers in the town who hang out at the bookstore where she works to her birthday party, and is shocked when they won't attend. It feels like this is there so that when Bird is born, it can be asserted that how Boy reacts to Snow isn't at all rooted in racism. I am not entirely convinced by this. Given the set-up of the book, although I would be made uncomfortable by more overt racism than appears, it would also bring another level of complexity to the relationships between mothers and daughters.

Bringing in another story from my book club, one of my friends was saying that he was bothered by how much racism there was in the book, while I replied that I actually thought that was surprisingly little. Most of what happens are microaggressions, and they're drawn very well. There is surprisingly little more overt racism. Which, even given that it's the Northern U.S., feels a little unrealistic. Black people I know here in Canada have had to deal with more overt manifestations of racism in the 21st century than we're seeing here in Connecticut in the 1950s.  It would have made the book much uglier to dwell upon it, and I get that an author may want to make the book about something else - but again, given the just feels a little odd.

This is not a book to read if you demand that everything become clear, but that's actually something I like about it. Boy's reactions to Snow are seen, but never entirely, internally, explained, even though two thirds of the book are from Boy's perspective. Boy herself doesn't entirely understand, and I think that works very well.

It is an interesting choice that, given that the book is divided into three sections, Snow never gets a section to speak from her point of view. The closest we get are letters she writes to her sister, Bird. In my book club, the middle section, from Bird's point of view, was the least favourite. Which is odd, because I really didn't find it offputting at all. I was really quite enjoying watching a girl trying to make sense of her world, knowing that there are things that are off about it, like a sister she has never seen, and grandparents who can barely stand to look at her.

That the Snow White equivalent has no voice in the book is a very interesting choice, and one that I think works. We get hints, but not conclusive answers, and indeed, that seems to be something that Oyeyemi avoids altogether.

As I hinted in the first paragraph, there is a revelation near the end that puts the consideration of this book about passing into an entirely different light, but to breathe a word of it would be just plain mean, so I won't. It is worth pushing through to, though, even if you find the middle section a slog. Whether or not you like it, it is interesting.

So, to sum up...there are ways that this book seems to avoid its own premise, which is odd, but in general, I liked the complexity, the multiple narrators, the complicated motives, and the refusal to really give definitive answers. Still, I didn't love the book. I admire it with a more distant affection.

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