Family secrets lurk in ‘Boy, Snow, Bird,’ an inventive take on Snow White

02/28/2014 1:00 PM

03/01/2014 9:25 PM

Reading Helen Oyeyemi’s “Boy, Snow, Bird” is a bit like wandering through a fairy tale.

As in the time-honored tale “Little Snow-White,” a mother dies shortly after giving birth to a beautiful daughter “white as snow,” and a stepmother is threatened by her stepdaughter’s beauty. This story is not told in the stark fashion of the Grimm brothers, but with originality and humor by the Nigerian-born, London-raised Oyeyemi.

And there are mirrors: “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy,” the protagonist begins.

The novel opens in 1953 when the enigmatically named Boy Novak escapes the Lower East Side tenement of her father, a rat catcher who belittles and beats Boy and makes her fear for her life. At 20, she boards a bus and winds up in Flax Hill, Mass. This New England village is home to working class artisans who fashion upscale items, like brocade gloves and hall-length tapestries, for rich patrons.

In her boarding house she is at first a creature apart, with her New York accent and her unusual name. But she soon makes friends, lands a job in a used and rare book shop and begins dating a widower, Arturo Whitman, who had been a history professor at Boston University.

After his opera diva wife died following the birth of their daughter, Snow, he learned to work with metals and became a jeweler. When Boy asks him why he left teaching, he says, “History got itchy.”

Boy and Arturo marry. When Boy gives birth to their daughter, Bird, however, the secret the Whitmans have harbored explodes, perhaps an example of itchy history. As Boy tells it, “The doctor thought I’d gone to bed with a colored man, and I had. He was my husband.”

Arturo’s family has been “passing” for white. The matriarch, Olivia, Arturo’s mother, has traded on her beauty and her imperiousness and her own and her husband’s light skin for years. She sent the only one of her progeny born with dark skin, Clara, down South to live with relatives.

Of Bird, the cool and aloof Olivia says to Boy: “This one’s dark like my eldest, Clara. See if Clara will take her.”

Strangely, after Boy gives birth, the stepdaughter she had previously doted on, the beautiful Snow, becomes repugnant or at least suspicious to her. So it is not the dark-skinned Bird but the lovely and loving Snow who is sent to Boston to live with her Aunt Clara.

Did Boy send Snow away because she was threatened by her beauty, or because she was being raised as “an overpetted show pony” by Olivia and her other grandmother, Agnes?

Whatever the motive, the exile proves enriching and enlightening for Snow; Clara, an activist, sets out to teach Snow some important political and personal history.

The novel is a triptych of first-person narratives. Boy’s narratives bookend the middle one, which belongs to the plucky and original Bird. At 13, Bird has a voice reminiscent of Scout Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Bird wants to become a reporter like her mom’s best friend, Mia.

“Lately I’ve become the kind of girl who likes to think on paper, settle down with a notepad and a decent pen. ” says Bird, who is smart, observant and has a keen sense of justice.

She is by far the most winning character in the novel. Her best friend is an older boy, Louis Chen. She likes his lively family — his mother is a cab driver, his father a jazz musician — as much as she likes Louis. She envies their togetherness and ease with each other, something missing in her own family.

She also misses her half-sister, Snow, which makes her resent her mother for sending her sister away. She and Snow write letters. They find they have much more in common with each other than they do with their biological father. When the family connects again, over a Thanksgiving holiday, more secrets spill.

If the pieces don’t all fit perfectly credibly, they present a compelling story, with echoes of other fairy tales and children’s literature.

Although she is only 29, this is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel. It’s no surprise that she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists last year. In “Boy, Snow, Bird,” the young author trains a gimlet eye on beauty and race. This is an old story made new with freshness and attitude.

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