This summer I devoured Helen Oyeyemi’s short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours; I absolutely loved it (read my review here). Made enthusiastic to read more of her work, I recently read the novel Boy, Snow, Bird. My final judgement? Hmm.
*warning – this review contains minor spoilers*
The story begins as Boy Novak runs away from her father’s horrible apartment full of the rats he catches for a living. She moves to a small town in Massachusetts and slowly begins to build a life for herself there, bouncing from one job to another and meeting some interesting characters along the way. The central topic of the novel isn’t revealed until she has married a widower and given birth to their dark-skinned daughter, Bird, almost halfway into the book. From that point onward the work tells a story of racism and families pretending to be something they are not in order to fit in.
Looking back, the theme of appearances is also present in the beginning of the book. For example, in one of her jobs Boy works on a ship with a crew of all blonde women. Here she meets Mia, a reporter who is wearing a wig in an attempt to find the ultimate story of ‘what it is to be blonde’. However, the first part of the story mainly centres around what seems to be a ‘city girl finds her way in a small town’-tale, allthough this is never resolved in a satisfactory way.
Like in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours there are many surreal elements in this novel. Bird’s image disappears from mirrors and Boy encounters a future (?) version of herself. To me, this magical realism felt rather empty. It often seemed to foreshadow events that never happened, or was irrelevant to the plot entirely. I assume that these elements are meant to strengthen the overall theme of appearances as well as enhance the ‘strangeness’ of the book. This seems to work better in a short story format. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours the magical realism strengthens the absurdity of the pictures the short stories paint and make the reader feel removed/ estranged from the characters in an interesting way. Short stories are often more concerned with original ideas and good storytelling than the reader’s relationship with the characters, and thus the magical realism works very well. However, in Boy, Snow, Bird this strangeness makes the characters feel rather flat and unnecessarily vague.
Throughout the two weeks in which I read this novel, I kept forgetting who characters were. I would often read a name and have to take a moment to actively think of who this person was. I believe that this is caused by the lack of description of characters and spaces in the novel. None of the characters (with the exception of Bird and maybe Boy) I could conjure up before my eyes. The only time the story really dwells on its characters is to criticize, satirize or in some other way scrutinize the inner workings of their brains. The way they look, feel, or their relationships with the other characters are not paid much attention to. Though this reflects the theme of the novel nicely, it makes it very difficult to see may of the smaller characters as more than shadows in this absurd play.
Overall, Boy, Snow, Bird was a pleasant reading experience, with beautiful prose and interesting ideas, but the storytelling itself does not hold up against Oyeyemi’s newer work What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. The placing of revelations throughout the novel was slightly off and therefore made the story feel long, fluffy and in other places too sudden. The characters were hard to connect to. Nevertheless, I am interested to read more of Oyeyemi’s work and see how it compares and matures.