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Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird – TLS

31/03/2014

Helen Oyeyemi is becoming one of our most adept demythologizers, constantly teasing out the loose ends of old stories to see what room there may be for new interpretations. Her previous novel, Mr Fox, concerns an author who is persuaded by his imaginary muse to invent variations on the Bluebeard tales that are his stock in trade. The muse hopes they can reach a deeper understanding of the violence in his work, thereby altering its deadly dynamic. Before Mr Fox, Oyeyemi published contemporary treatments of the ghost story, in The Icarus Girl, and the haunted house story, in White is for Witching. As her career progresses, she is developing into the kind of writer A.S. Byatt described in Possession, one whose strong readings of stories seem “wholly new”, while appearing to have been “always there”. In her latest book this is even more strikingly apparent. Boy, Snow, Bird reimagines ‘Snow White’, that tale of mothers and mirrors, and sets it in America at the birth of the civil rights movement. As old as the story is, and as often as it has been reworked, Oyeyemi finds meanings that we have failed to notice, even when they were staring us in the face.

Many of the characters in Boy, Snow, Bird show what is often called inhuman cruelty to one another, but Oyeyemi assigns the traditional evil of the Grimm Brothers’ story to the mirror, and not, finally, to any of them. The mirror’s insidious question, “Who is the fairest of them all?”, lies behind everything that happens in this novel where people are obsessed with surface appearance and no one looks the way they feel. As in Angela Carter’s refashioned tales in which monsters are, as the critic Lorna Sage saw, “marinated in being” (that wolf-man eating a young girl is also an image of famine), so here the mirror retains its shaman power, while being unmistakably, a product of poisonous human relations. Oyeyemi reinvigorates her narratives – the fairy tale, and the ugliness of racism in postwar America – by concentrating on those elements that have the potential to change our view of the story, particularly the enigma of origins. As it transpires in two shocking revelations, no one in Boy, Snow, Bird is who or what they seem.

The book is structured in three parts and begins with Boy – a girl of whitest hair and blackest eyes, but also just a “jumpy kid” with a hardboiled attitude – describing her wretched, motherless life with her father in New York. He is a rat catcher, as terrifying as any Hamelin piper or demon to come out of the ancient German forests, but whose sinister cast is more suggestive of the mean streets of twentieth century America. After he ties Boy up in the basement and assaults her with his rats, she flees, taking a bus to the end of the line in Flax Hill, Massachusetts, where she finds lodging in an all-women boarding house (a nod to Little Women, the first story Oyeyemi rewrote as an adolescent). She starts dating a widower, Arturo Whitman, who, like many of the townspeople, is a craftsman. One night on a back street, outside a brambled house wreathed in the “the smell of baking chocolate-chip cookies”, she catches a glimpse of his beautiful daughter, Snow. Something about the child and this set-up seems staged, a falseness all the more disturbing for being eerily familiar.

Oyeyemi – a reader of Jack Zipes and Marina Warner – manages expertly to insert her fairy tale into a modern landscape. Flax Hill has some of Hitchcock’s small town uneasiness and its craftsmen, a medieval quality that is part worker drone, part wizard (Arturo makes Boy strange jewelry in the shape of snakes and chains); one woman is described as “corpselike” until a man comes along to awaken her “vivacity”. There are dissident elements, too, people not slumbering in the past but living ahead of their time, and seeming oddball because of it. Boy forms friendships with the independent woman running the bookshop who allows black kids to bunk off school and read her books without paying for them. And there is Mia, a journalist, writing an idiosyncratic article (“wacky”, Boy calls it) about the secret life of blondes.

Helen Oyeyemi, 2014

Helen Oyeyemi, 2014

Boy’s sympathies are with these outliers and “imposters”, but she marries Arturo because of the stability he offers, becoming step-mother to Snow. Arturo’s mother, Olivia, is enchanted by the strangely alluring child, but Boy remains distrustful, finding her words empty, her daintiness menacing. When Boy’s own child, Bird, is born “coloured”, these suspicions are confirmed: the Whitmans are exposed as liars, passing for white, and the fair Snow, a product of their “calculated breeding”. Boy’s reaction is cruel and to type: she rejects her stepdaughter, sending her to live with Arturo’s darker sister, who, as a child, was herself sent away from home in order to preserve the family myth of whiteness.

During a recent talk at a London bookshop, Oyeyemi said she revised Boy, Snow, Bird after watching Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s film set in the run-up to the American Civil War. She did not say what prompted the alterations, but in the film, the man who buys Django out of slavery tells him the legend of Siegfried, and hails him as just such a hero. The story helps Django to see himself in a new light and encourages him in his quest for freedom. In the same way, in Boy, Snow, Bird old stories are constantly shared, tested and reinvented in an effort to shape the present: Boy collaborates with Mia on her blondes article, adding a fable about a serpentine woman who will not yield to any man’s image of her – the baleful snake from her bracelet becoming now a sign of strength; while Snow doubts the probability of Cinderella’s subservience to her step-mother.

Yet this is also a novel about stories that should not be disseminated. In this, it shares ground with Carter’s novel Shadow Dance (1965), in which she introduces another manipulative, vacuous girl, worshipped by all for her white beauty. In an act of sheer authorial rage, Carter crucifies her, attempting to kill off this undying nightmare of the feminine ‘ideal’. The fate Oyeyemi deals to Snow is not lethal, but she is sent away to her aunt for re-education, and held at bay in the story – her white heat too incinerating for those she comes into contact with.  Boy’s daughter Bird takes over the narration after Snow leaves Flax Hill, and the sisters exchange letters, although the younger girl remains uncertain if Snow is “phony”. Unlike Carter’s blonde, who is clueless about her meaning, Snow senses the poison within her and is spooked by it. Her dawning understanding of what she represents is one of the few signs of progress that we have made in the fifty years that separates the two novels – though Oyeyemi still makes a point of not allowing Snow her turn to narrate, leaving Boy to play out the story.

In the final section Mia tracks down Boy’s mother, whose life turns out to have been the cruellest of all, and the women are brought together in a bid to rescue her. In the last sentence Boy says of her mother-in-law, Olivia, “I told her to wait there, and that we’d be back for her”, demonstrating her control over Olivia’s deforming story, but also making a narrative promise that there can be a way out of the myth she has constructed, that no one need be left behind in its rotten plot. Except, perhaps, for the troubling Snow. The ending is ambiguous and doubt remains over whether she will be released from her quarantine – as if Oyeyemi were acknowledging that some characters cannot be made over and there are, after all, limits to the power of demythologizing.

This review appeared in the TLS on 21.3.2014 as ‘Whitest Hair and Blackest Eyes’.

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