I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I like Helen Oyeyemi a lot. She’s one of those writers who is a ‘one to watch’, one who already produces really interesting work and who has even better work within her. You can see it springing from the page. But if you don’t believe me, believe Granta who highlighted Oyeyemi as one of their Best Young British Novelists in 2013 alongside some other more familiar names like Zadie Smith, Ned Beauman, Xiaolu Guo and another of my own ‘ones to watch’ Evie Wyld. One other thing I might not have mentioned about Oyeyemi is how super-clever she is, and how somehow I get the feeling I’m only scratching the bare surface of her work. Setting my own lack of cleverness aside, the one thing that unites Oyeyemi’s work is how enjoyable it is, and Boy Snow Bird is no different in that respect. And perhaps I have a slight vested interest in Oyeyemi doing really well as my edition of Boy Snow Bird is a signed first, but that's by the by. The best part is how great she is.
In Boy Snow Bird Oyeyemi plays with fairy tales, turning them on their heads and inside out until you’re not sure exactly what role everyone is playing. The story starts with Boy, a young New Yorker, blonde and beautiful, who lives with her ratcatcher father who now and again beats her up, tortures her and abuses her for no apparent reason whatsoever. Or perhaps there is a reason? Boy herself never seems to be quite sure, but one thing she is sure of is her odd relationship with mirrors. As she describes:
“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.”
Eventually Boy runs away from home, taking a bus as far as her money will take her and arriving at the town of Flax Hill, a town whose air took on a strong flavour of palinka, in which everyone is a specialist in something, populated by woodcutters and jewellers and a little girl called Snow whose father, Arturo, takes a particular interest in Boy. You can see where this is going, right?
Or can you? Oyeyemi’s skill is in playing with your expectations, taking a familiar story and turning it into something new and different, a fairy tale for a modern, interlinked and globalised world. Using the familiar as a prop to bring a different spin on the issue of race, on the issue of living in a multicultural environment in which, to a large extent, the embodiment of beauty is one with dark hair and blue eyes and pale, pale skin. Where then does Bird, dark skinned daughter to Arturo and Boy fit in? And why can’t she always see herself in mirrors? It is all very puzzling, and yet a very entertaining and rewarding read.
Helen Oyeyemi writes charmingly. Her characters are vivacious, wisecracking, innovative, they leap off the page, and yet if I was going to make any criticism of Oyeyemi’s writing, bizarrely this is where it would be. As I was reading, entertained, the pages flowing easily, I realised that there was something a little samey about the main characters: Boy, Snow and Bird. This was particularly noticeable in part 2 which includes an exchange of letters between Snow and Bird, estranged sisters, which in their tone and expression seem remarkably similar. This may be one of those clever points that I, in my ignorance, have failed to appreciate, but it represented a small stain in an otherwise flawlessly entertaining reading experience. Yet somehow I wonder, as all three experience problems with mirrors are they somehow representations of three different aspects of the same woman? Maybe it is something deeper I’m missing here, and the joy in Oyeyemi’s storytelling is how she keeps you guessing and guessing.
If you haven’t yet encountered Helen Oyeyemi, I would encourage you to give her a try. Boy Snow Bird is a wonderful, entertaining read, the kind that you “eat with your eyes” as one of Oyeyemi’s characters sagely observes. It is doubtless that Oyeyemi has a talent, that she is an innovative and vibrant writer with a skill for a snappy turn of phrase and turning stories, and expectations, on their head. There is better yet to come from her, I am convinced of that, and I look forward to discovering what magical journey she will take us on next.
Boy Snow Bird receives a magical 9 out of 10 Bii’s.