Thursday, March 13, 2014

The trouble with mirrors is that they only see what's on the surface

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird is loosely based on the Snow White fairy tale, though it modernizes the story to one set in 1950s Massachusetts in a sleepy little segregated town.  Boy, 20-year-old woman, arrives in town looking for a better life than the miserable one she left behind in New York.  She finds... a lot more than she bargained for, including a widower whom she is drawn to but also clashes with.

I think the book description for this book gives a bit too much away, though I can imagine how much they struggled to write it because it's hard to write about this book without giving a lot away.  Therefore, this will probably be a short review, but I hope you won't take that to mean that I did not enjoy the book.  I did, but in a completely different way than I expected.

This is a thinking book, the sort that is practically begging for group discussion and analysis to go over in minute detail all of the symbolism that I am pretty sure I did not fully grasp.  For example, why the main narrator is named Boy.  And the way that Oyeyemi used mirrors to describe the difference between what people perceive and what you really are.  And whether people even see you in the first place.  For example, Boy is a white woman.  She loves to look at herself in the mirror.  Generally, her reflection looks pretty satisfied with herself.  Her stepdaughter Snow can usually see herself in the mirror but sometimes she cannot.  And Boy's daughter Bird - well, more often than not, she is completely invisible in the mirror.  She will walk into a room and the mirror just won't see her.  It's a pretty chilling metaphor for race, and a very apt one.  And just one of the many, many ways that Oyeyemi amps up the Snow White fairy tale to make it much more relevant.  She is a master at showing us the complex and intricate ways in which race plays into our lives and defines us in ways that we often do not wish to be defined.

There's a great quote in the book that I think sums this up pretty well:
I've met Great-aunt Effie enough times to go beyond first impressions, and there isn't a bad bone in that woman's body.  But ... that girl you mentioned, the one who feels cheated, Great-aunt Effie is like that.  She thinks there are treasures that were within her reach, but her skin stole them from her.  She thinks she could've been somebody.  But she is somebody.  Somebody who's changed bullies away with broomsticks, somebody who saved for years so Aunt Clara could go to nursing school without having to ask her mother for the money.  She's somebody Aunt Clara loves, somebody she couldn't have done without.  A woman like Effie Whitman thinking she could've been somebody ... that pushes icicles all the way down my spine.
I wouldn't say that this book is perfect.  Or, I guess I would rephrase that.  I wouldn't say that this book is easy to digest and understand on the first go-round.  Even now, a week after I finished it, I am still mulling over the ending and the character relationships and what exactly everything meant.  I wish someone else would read the book and discuss it with me!  It challenged me in ways that reminded me of why I loved English class so much in school, and reminded me that we don't give modern literature nearly enough credit by focusing so much on reading "classics" because the traditional classics often ignore big issues like gender and race, and those are very important issues that deserve our attention and critical thinking.

So, while I don't know if I fully understood this novel, and I don't know if I liked everything about it, I still wholeheartedly recommend that you read it because it will exercise your brain and remind you of the way we view the world, and how that view is imperfect, and that is important.

13 comments:

  1. I added this to my list the minute I heard about it, and I am excited to hear that it is a "thinking" book. I need one of those right now (after too many no-thinking books).

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    1. I know that feeling well! I also know the opposite feeling ;-)

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  2. I really REALLY liked this book (despite some problems with the ending -- didn't you think the ending was tonally quite strange??), even though there were definitely things I didn't get about it. I thought the writing was as good as Helen Oyeyemi's even been, and the structure of the book seemed to fit together better than some of her others have.

    Is this the first book you've read by her? With Helen Oyeyemi you kind of have to accept that you won't understand everything. You should read White Is for Witching! I love White Is for Witching.

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    1. I thought the ending was quite strange not just tonally but in every other way, too.

      Yes, this is the first book I've read by her. I do own White is for Witching, though, so I shall get on that!

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  3. I have this one, but now I'm worried about reading it. What if it just totally goes over my head?

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    1. Then you'll be no worse off than I was ;-)

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  4. You did not fully understand it...yikes, maybe not for me then

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  5. I would love to discuss this one with you! Email me. :-)

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    1. OH, good. Vasilly saw this post. I was going to say that I *think* Vasilly read this one.

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  6. Excellent review! I want to read this. Sadly, I'm not sure if my book club would embrace it. Sound fascinating and important. (And I love attempting to discern symbolism.)

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  7. I've heard a lot of interesting things about this one and can't wait to read it. It sounds complex and meaty. I have her previous novel, Mr. Fox which I still haven't managed to read but I've heard so many great things about Oyeyemi over the years that I really must get my act together!

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  8. I have to admit I am not sure what I think about this book. I finished it last week, the only book I managed to read on my trip, and I still can't decide if I liked it or not. And, nope, don't think I got everything either.

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