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Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, Picador, RRP£12.99 / Riverhead $27.95, 288 pages
The day Boy Novak runs off from her brutal father, a Lower East Side ratcatcher, is the day she falls on the best luck so far of her 20 years. Seizing the last bus of the night, she lands haphazardly in Flax Hill, New England, where she follows two women through the snow to their boarding house simply because she overhears the word “landlady”. The women of this “prim, skinny” red-brick welcome her with soup and speculation; she has found a new home, though she still dreams of rats and is occasionally caught seemingly admiring herself in reflective surfaces . . .
The Somerset Maugham Award-winning Helen Oyeyemi has a penchant for myth and fairy tale. In her last novel, Mr Fox, she unpicked and restitched the legend of Bluebeard, and in Boy, Snow, Bird, her fifth, she reconfigures Snow White, with walk-ons from the crowded cast of child-scaring legend enlisted to enrich the narrative.
The story opens in 1953, in Manhattan – only a few pages are needed to explain the reason for Boy’s flight to Flax Hill (“So that’s Papa . . . He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind, or he’ll thump you in the back of your head and walk away sniggering”). There, after a few false starts, Boy – the reason for her perverse first name does not come until the final pages – marries Arturo Whitman, a widowed former history teacher with a preternaturally beautiful young daughter, Snow.
Arturo is now a jeweller and his engagement gift to Boy is not a ring but a bracelet in the shape of a snake, its scales cold against her wrist. “Could that scream ‘wicked stepmother’ any louder?”, asks her friend.
As Boy sets off into stepmotherhood, she falls for funny, beguiling Snow. But when Boy gives birth to Bird, the lie underpinning Arturo’s life is exposed. This is no mirror-image infant looking into its mother’s eyes. The nurse states it baldly: “That little girl is a Negro.”
Arturo, and those members of his family Boy has met, are light-skinned African-Americans passing as white. Boy has married a black man, a man whose mother is in thrall to Snow’s whiteness. And Boy has crushed the promise of bringing whiteness-by-birth to the Whitmans, a family that has already exiled one dark-skinned child.
As Boy watches her precious daughter gazing besotted at Snow, she struggles with the “trick” of Snow’s beauty and with the condemnatory glances she herself receives when people look at Bird. She feels wronged, and wrong for minding. As mirrors that challenge and accuse populate her dreams, she fights the resentment that now rises at the sight of Snow. Snow, after all, is not the fairest of them all.
Oyeyemi does so much more than recycle. In lithe, spry prose, she reminds us how people can seize upon images of beauty – such as the Whitmans’ fixation with “being” white – even though those images are ultimately hurtful to those who so firmly believe in them.
Her explorations of female comradeship – of the sort that welcomed Boy at Flax Hill – are beautifully written, with little to hint at the ironies to come; the latter part of the story is taken up by the two half-sisters and carried through the 1960s, a decade that shouted “black is beautiful”. But in this layered retelling of Snow White, that depends which mirror you’re looking in.