Boy, Snow, Bird


Helen Oyeyemi has been featured before on this very blog, in a brief review of the enchanting Mr. Fox. I went into Boy, Snow, Bird with high expectations and for roughly 98% of its page count I thought the book was going to meet or exceed them, only to abruptly swerve off course with an utterly baffling ending that more or less erased every ounce of good will the book had built up.

A short and somewhat flippant description of the book’s plot: it’s a sort-of retelling of Snow White through the lens of racism in America circa the 50s and 60s.

A longer version: Boy Novak leaves her abusive father (referred to mostly as “the rat catcher” in one of the books many light fairytale trappings) and flees New York for the confines of Flax Hill, a very slightly surreal town of artists and craftspeople. There she falls in love with a man and his precocious step-daughter from another marriage, Snow (do you see) and has a child of her own with him, the titular Bird. All does not go according to plan when Bird’s birth reveals the shameful secret lurking in her husband’s background, but Boy decides not to let the difficulties this brings on her fledgling family stop her from raising her daughter. Before long her desire to protect Bird causes her to do something irrational and awful, the effects of which reverberate into the next decade and beyond.

That’s as apt a description as I can give without going into major spoilers. What I will say is that the book engages with ideas of race and racial identity, and specifically the ways in which endemic racism can severely fuck people up and tear social structures apart.  It’s an issue that Oyeyemi handles (in my obviously not qualified estimation) with a lot of nuance and subtlety.

The magical realism elements of the book aren’t nearly as strong as they were in Mr. Fox, but they’re certainly present, and characters never pass up a chance to recite delightfully off-kilter fairytales to each other. There’s some really gorgeous imagery here, wrapped up in a story that’s gently heart-breaking to read.

And then there’s that ending

Okay, to imply that I was completely on-board the Bird-train right up until the final pages would be incorrect. As the book goes on it becomes less and less tightly wound, with the long section from Bird’s perspective in particular containing a lot of material that, when all is said and done, doesn’t feel particularly relevant or necessary, as though this was a novella that needed to be puffed up a bit to meet a page count quota. And while I’m about to tear into the ending for all sorts of problematic elements (spoilers ahoy btw) it’s also just plain sloppy writing, coming completely out of nowhere and not having much of anything to do with the preceding 97% or so of the book.

But that aside:

So Boy’s journalist friend comes to her with a Shocking Revelation: she went looking for Boy’s long-lost mother only to discover that- surprise, fuckers!- the rat catcher is her mother. See, he was raped by a fellow student at college and his inability to get over it caused him to become transgendered (this is more or less literally how the book describes it).

During all of this Boy keeps mis-gendering her dad and referring to him as mentally ill which, okay, Boy is kind of asshole to begin with and I can see even really accepting people thinking like that at first out of shock, but then the book ends with Boy and most of the rest of the protagonists piling into a car to drive to Daddy Rat-Catcher’s place to see if they can get the Woman Within to come out again, as if they think there’s some kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deal going on. I still have no idea why they want to do this, or indeed why the ever-loving fuck any of this is in the book. Even if it wasn’t blatantly transphobic it would be an absurd, completely bizarre ending with only the most tenuous thematic links to anything that preceded it.

Guys, I don’t know what to do with this. I thought I was a big fan of Oyeyemi’s, but this book has me contemplating not reading anything of her’s again. I guess you could always read this and just stop before the final chapter, but then you’d be supporting it financially and I’m not sure that sits well with me.

A profound and shocking disappointment on many levels.


5 thoughts on “Boy, Snow, Bird

  1. Jaie

    i interpreted the end as Boy mending the relationship with Snow, and reaching out to her as part of her family by going with her to seek her own mother. and instead of focusing on Boy trying to get the female part out of Mr. Novak, i just guessed she was goint to him to find whatever there was left of a mother (weird or what?).
    i wrote a review on the novel but i avoided getting into that particular topic. too tricky for me!

  2. Rainicorn

    I agree pretty much completely with your assessment. I would say it flabbergasts me that someone with such sensitivity to race could be so utterly tone-deaf when it comes to gender, if I hadn’t seen it so often the other way around. -_-

    1. Jaie

      i agree — the context about why Mr. Novak became himself is a touchy issue (did it have to be about trauma in the first place? couldn’t have been a personal developement choice?).

  3. The Handsome Coward

    I also just finished this and the ending… baffled me? The more I think about Frank the more unsettling I find it that he doesn’t really get to respond to this multi-generational lady SWAT team who’s coming after him. For a writer who uses themes of identity and doubles so often I thought there was going to be something more to the ratcatcher. Also the more I think about the book’s insistence that we interrogate systems that want people to pass as something other than they are, the grosser the idea of a free-willed feminist turning(?) trans because of rape/trauma becomes.

    Curious as to what section in Bird’s narration you’re talking about exactly – I thought the letters between her and Snow were a good representation of hiding information from others, even while in direct communication. I like Louis Chen, but thought much of the stuff about the fight wasn’t that great.

    That ending tho.


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