From the Archives: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

One of a series of reviews republished from the Shiny Archive of Issue 1 to celebrate our 4th birthday

Reviewed by Simon Thomas

At some point, Helen Oyeyemi will stop being notable for her youth – but, at 29 and with five novels under her belt, that day has not yet come. What should perhaps get more attention is that her novels are astonishingly, and increasingly, good. Boy, Snow, Bird is probably her best yet, and shows a maturity far beyond her years.

Full disclaimer: I’ve only read her first, third, and fifth, but I think we can count that as a representative number. The Icarus Girl showed incredible promise; White is For Witching seemed to get a bit lost in experimentation, but that’s better than being dull; Boy, Snow, Bird brings promise and experiment together in a beautiful, and beautifully complex, portrait of three fascinating women.

We start with Boy (yes, Boy is a girl, in one of Oyeyemi’s less convincing moments of quirkiness, but one which actually pays off in the end).  Boy has an abusive rat-catcher father (almost cartoon abusive, truth be told) and longs to escape – which she eventually does by getting on a bus and travelling as far as it will go: to Flax Hill, and to Snow, the daughter of the man she falls in love with.  Later she has her own daughter, Bird, and the trio is complete.

The opening paragraph is quintessential Oyeyemi, demonstrating her long-standing interest in doubles and identity:

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.  I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction.  Many, many me’s.  When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last.  The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.  I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch.  I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps.

Oyeyemi’s interest in doubles happens to mirror mine, so I was instantly sold – and she is careful not to over-labour the theme in this novel. The mirrors make regular reappearances, and obviously echo the similarities which bounce back and forth between the three central characters, but we are left to draw our own conclusions about how much these women resent or distrust the reflections of themselves in each other.

For the relationship between the three women of the title is depicted in a moving and intricate way.  The first section of the book is narrated by Boy; the second by Bird.  Snow is almost eerie by the absence of her voice – especially since much of the book is taken up by the efforts of Boy and Bird to create a portrait of her.  Boy does not trust her stepdaughter, but doesn’t appear quite to know why; Bird grows up apart from her sister, and tries to draw her own conclusions from a distance.  The reader longs to hear from the horse’s mouth, as it were, but has to see through a glass darkly – or, rather, through passages like this:

If Snow was ever worried, if any anxieties ever disturbed her for longer than a day, she rarely showed it.  She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it.  She’d pat your arm, and say, “Everything is okay.  Everything is normal,” and you took her word for it.  Sometimes I think it was a trick of hers, deciding aloud what was going on so that everyone who loved her fell over themselves to make it so.  Sometimes I think we needed her to be like that and she obliged. 

In the hands of a less capable novelist, there would be a sympathetic character and some antagonists – or the stepmother/stepdaughter dynamic would be much closer to the archetype of Snow White (an allusion which, of course, sneakily hovers behind Snow’s name).  Oyeyemi, on the other hand, has written three characters so complex and interesting that it is almost impossible to empathise or the reverse for longer than a handful of pages.  They are astonishingly sophisticated creations.

The (perhaps inevitable) downside to this is that the secondary characters rather pale in comparison.  Boy’s father, as I’ve mentioned, is perhaps too cruel to be convincing – although some effort is made to fill in the gaps towards the end of Boy, Snow, Bird.  At the other end of the spectrum, Boy’s friends and relatives – even her husband – didn’t hold my attention for long, and feel a little underdeveloped.  Once Bird takes over the narrative, her friend-maybe-boyfriend Louis Chen is well-drawn and rather adorable – certainly one of the few teenage relationships I’ve read about without rolling my eyes – but, again, the other characters fade into the background.  But with three dominant figures, this is a small shortcoming.

If the characterisation of her central trio is Oyeyemi’s strongest quality, then her writing isn’t far behind. Oyeyemi has developed a sophisticated style which draws the reader in without giving them everything they want, and is neatly paced with a lyricism and natural rhythm which is beautiful without being showy.  It’s the sort of writing which cannot be taught, but which can perhaps be learnt over the course of several novels.  Having started so early, Oyeyemi has already developed to a point which most authors seldom reach – and she’s still under thirty.  One can only imagine where she’ll be in thirty years’ time.

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Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors at large, and, being 28 (at the original time of writing), could technically still have five novels published before turning thirty… right?

Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (Picador: London, 2014). 978-1447237136, 308pp., hardback.

Read an interview with Helen Oyeyemi about Boy, Snow, Bird – click here.

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