Boy, Snow, Bird falls into an unusual category for me. In my mental bookshelf, it sits amongst books that I thought were undoubtedly “good” and that also challenged me greatly: I count books like Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, Zadie Smith’s NW, and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living through Plastic Explosives among these. Any yet it also falls into my own category of books that were compulsively readable, whatever that means – perhaps just that I didn’t want to put it down. It seems rare to find a book that is both very challenging and very accessible.
Perhaps that has something to do with the Snow White-motif at the heart of the story. Even if the story isn’t the Disney version that everyone is familiar with, there are enough familiar images and symbols that pop up and give you a sense of recognition. Or perhaps act as a signpost – ah, here is a strange fixation on mirrors, here is the evil stepmother, this is where we are in the story.
I haven’t read Helen Oyeyemi’s other books. With Boy, Snow, Bird she seems to to set out to discuss racial and sexual identity through a fairy tale lens. There is something off-kilter throughout the book, details that could only exist in a fairy tale – protagonists who don’t always show up in mirrors, for example – but perhaps that is set up to mirror the characters’ own identities and the underlying societal issues.
After reading the book, I’m hard pressed to say what it was really about. I suppose to sum it up in a sentence, I’d say that “it’s a retelling of a Snow White tale.” But it’s also something entirely different than that, something that I’ll continue thinking about for a while – a book that I may have to revisit month, years down the road, before I really understand.
As a complete aside, in one of my other Wordfest reviews this year I complained that one book was unconvincing in the letters that characters sent to each other (that they sounded inauthentic, that they were letters no one would actually write and included just to forward certain plot points). Boy, Snow, Bird, on the other hand, includes a delightful series of letters between half-sisters Snow and Bird – letters that were fully convincing, that I completely believed each character would write.
Reviewed by Kelsey Attard