Sunday, July 26, 2015

boy, snow, bird: a very short review

Somehow, on my nightstand (I suspect via my daughter, the insatiable reader), there appeared Helen Oyeyemi's boy, snow, bird.

(On the cover, and elsewhere on the Web, the title is capitalized, but in the book itself each page is headed boy, snow, bird, and so shall I.)

From the title, you might think this is a nature tale, some sort of Jack London youthful adventure, but you'd be wrong. Boy, Snow, and Bird are actually three separate women: Boy Novak, her stepdaughter Snow, and her birth daughter Bird.

Boy has escaped her horrifically abusive home in New York City in the early 1950's, and ends up somewhere in rural Massachusetts, where she marries Snow's father, and some time later has a daughter of her own.

There are lots of discussions of social issues, class and race and gender questions, as well as the more complicated issues that confront mothers, daughters, and (step-)sisters.

And of course, as so many reviewers have observed, it is vaguely a retelling of the fable of Snow White, though I'm not really sure that Oyeyemi cares all that much about that aspect, except insofar as it involves the complicated role that the ideal of female beauty plays in human life, and how that ties into those aforementioned class and race and gender questions.

I guess I'm making it sound rather dry, which is a shame, because boy, snow, bird is anything but dry. Oyeyemi is a marvelous young writer, absurdly talented and yet still confident enough not to flaunt that talent by rubbing your face in it.

Seemingly effortlessly, Oyeyemi produces astonishing, spellbinding passages such as this:

Bird really likes her bedroom. There are quite a few cobwebs in it and Bird has no intention of tampering with a single one of them, no matter how many times her mom says her room is a disgrace. At the very most Bird might dust a cobweb off with the tip of a feather, but only to keep it looking spick-and-span. A lot of the time there are tiny memorials on the walls, in the corner behind the wardrobe, little specks only Bird and the spiders understand the importance of. Flies and other weaker insects have fought epic battles against the spiders and they've lost, leaving behind them a layer of wing, or a thin black leg joint that holds to the wallpaper for as long as it can before drying out and peeling away. Bird enjoys the stealthy company of the spiders, and in all other respects her room is tidy. Her mom has asked her if she thinks she'll continue to enjoy the stealthy company of the spiders after one of them has taken a bite out her, and Bird answers: "We'll see." In the evening, when the street lamp just outside Bird's window switches on, the gray cobwebs quiver and glow around the blue moons. It's the kind of view that Bird doesn't mind risking a spider bite for. Back when she used to say bedtime prayers, right after she'd prayed for her mom and her dad and her grandparents and the Chens and Aunt Mia and Snow and anybody who was sick or in trouble or all alone, Bird would throw in seven words for herself: Let spiders spin webs in my hair. It'd be great if they could be persuaded to spin little hats for her, dusty towers of thread that lean and whisper.

You'll never think about spiders the same way again, even if you yourself never come to enjoy their stealthy company.

I have no idea what Oyeyemi will do next; I have this feeling she's just getting started.

Keep your eyes open for her; she's worth your attention.

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