wander the sea

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Photo: Cynthia Via

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

Much of this novel is about finding an identity, how people perceive you and the lies you tell yourself so you don’t make it obvious that you’re aware of the absurdities. Society inflicts biases on young lives, altering their understanding of how they’re suppose to act and feel. The book opens with Boy, the daughter of a rat-catcher, who studies her reflection, lingering over her looks as they appear on the surface of a mirror. The later characters we find meet, also study themselves in front of a mirror. In Bird’s case she doesn’t see a reflection, as if subconsciously realizing that her family members and friends don’t see her for who she, but instead as something all together separate.

Bird’s family, from her father’s side have been hiding a secret that she revealed simply by being born. The secret was easily hidden before, since her grandparents were of a lighter complexion and had their names changed, moved to a new town, allowing them to pass as white. The events in the novel take place between the 1950s and 1970s. Though the Civil Right Act of 1964  improved the lives for black citizens, there was still much resistance, especially in small towns, so Bird’s family decided to pass for white.

There’s an interweaving of race, personal identity, and gender present in Oyeyemi’s novel that allows for multiple narrators. A young Boy narrates the first half of the story, as she escapes her childhood home and her abusive father, to go to Flax Hill, New York, and learn what kind of woman she wants to be. In the second half of the book, we meet a different narrator—Boy’s teenage daughter, Bird who is slowly beginning to understand how she’s viewed by society and the expectations that are placed on her, as opposed to her stepsister, Snow, who is white.

“Snow in winter, you in spring, snow in summer, you in fall,” her father Arturo, tells Bird.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

Bird aspires to be a journalist one day; she’s unafraid to get her feelings hurt in order to find a good story. She’s willing to listen even when she knows she shouldn’t, but does so for a chance to understand herself and her “enemies.” She wants to challenge traditional ideas by being herself and not letting her family or friends define her before she’s had a chance to figure out all the pieces. She sometimes looks to family for guidance, but is often devoid of the attention she deserves.

Oyeyemi goes for a loose, casual style of writing, which doesn’t appear rigid, and it let’s the reader feel more sympathetic towards the characters and the events in their life, but it also allows for an explanation of traumatic scenes in simple long sentences that don’t carry much decorative weight leaving the reader feeling icy cold. She expresses moments that would otherwise be dramatic or wretched in a levelheaded way, leaving you to decide whether it’s something truly awful or just a passing moment.

Here’s a line that describes Bird’s room where she loved spending nights, alone studying the corners of her mind. “In the evening, when the street lamp just outside Bird’s window switches on, the gray cobwebs quiver and glow around the blue moons. It’s the kind of view that Bird doesn’t mind risking a spider bite for.”

Boy’s observation of her father is casual, almost sarcastic to the level of cruelty he displays. “So that’s papa. Cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind or he’ll thump the back of you head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around the floor, stunned.”

The book sometimes leaves out events and skips to subsequent scenes, so we are left to assume many things, especially because the writing can seem vague and aloof. What was missing frequently was a certainty about the character’s motives and internal conflicts. Much is left to the reader to decide, making it easy to misunderstand a character and dismiss the weight of their storyline. Also, the change in narrator felt abrupt towards the end, when the voice of Boy returned one last time.

The novel opened with Boy examining herself in front of a mirror and closed with a moment of revelation, and the search for another family secret, hidden to Boy. These bookends signify a need for personal discovery even if it leads down a dark, nebulous path, because half the fun is finding the answer.

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