Helen Oyeyemi is a hugely talented and clever writer. Not yet 30, this Nigerian-British author has braved relocation to a foreign country, fought depression, and at the same time, written five exceptional books.
She wrote the bestselling Icarus Girl when she was still in school. Her third book, White is for Witching, won the 2010 Somerset Maugham award, and Oyeyemi recently made it onto the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list.
All of which means that it should be easy to fall in love with her latest book: Boy, Snow, Bird. But like her approach to storytelling, my response to the book was more nuanced and complicated.
Oyeyemi loves to weave multi-layered stories around mythology, fairy tales and legend. Boy, Snow, Bird promised, maybe somewhat misleadingly, to be based on the tale of Snow White.
In fact, it is much more. Like a Hollywood movie gone wild with cameos, Oyeyemi’s book positively bursts with literary allusions.
The story starts out as a mix of Cinderella and the Pied Piper of Hamelin. A girl named Boy lives with her abusive father, who happens to works as a rat catcher. He tortures rats in the basement, and hurls punches and abuse at Boy, convincing her that she has evil lurking within. Finally, Boy runs away, and in her new life, meets and marries a widower.
The widower has a beautiful daughter named Snow. Some years after the marriage, Boy gives birth to her own daughter. It’s at this point that the story hurtles into astonishing territory. And Oyeyemi dives straight into the heart of race relations in pre-civil rights-movement America. Boy begins to act like a wicked stepmother.
I won’t spoil Oyeyemi’s twist, which turns all the relationships in the story on their heads, except to say that it will keep you furiously turning pages. And I don’t mean to spoil the story either by saying that this momentum doesn’t last. Soon after Oyeyemi sets up such a fantastic scenario about mistaken identity and family shunning, the narration shifts to Boy’s birth daughter, Bird. She lacks the power of the other characters, and winds up slowing and frustrating the plot.
While I didn’t love all of this book, I respect that Oyeyemi was determined to make readers think and work for her story. She takes risks in her writing and, for me, that can sometimes be worth more than perfection.
Heather Allen is a book reviewer living in Penticton.