Nobody ever warned me about mirror, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I'd hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me's. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton. I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch. I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps. (p.3)As a child growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one particular enjoyment my younger sister and I had was playing over and over again a recording of Disney songs and fairy tales on our parents' stereo LP player. Of particular interest was the tale of Snow White, which contained some variations from the movie version. Yet there was always this mysterious mirror, mirror on the wall, telling whoever asked who was the fairest one of all. At the time, six or so not being the sort of time where most young boys ask themselves how beautiful they are in relation to the world, questions such as this did not affect me. Yet in looking back over thirty years, there is something about those scenes, especially in the cartoon movie version, that is a bit unsettling to consider. What is beauty? Is it in the eye of the beholder or within the ken of those to whom it is not an objective, distant object but instead something intrinsic to their very beings? Do our desires, latent or expressed, to be associated with beauty affect or even define our relationships to others?
In Helen Oyeyemi's just-released fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, these questions are played out across a cultural landscape that is not as far distant as many of us would wish, that of segregationist America of the early 1950s. Here, color becomes a driving factor. I say this not just to reference the language of the time for racial difference, but also because of the key role it plays within the narrative. The story of a wicked stepmother is a familiar one in Euro-American fairy tale traditions, but Oyeyemi's marriage of that with fixations on color in race divides creates a tale that can make many of us uncomfortable to consider all of its import.
The story revolves around the first-person narrator, Boy, who marries a widower, Arturo Whitman, with a young daughter, Snow. At first, the marriage is a happy one, until the birth of Boy's first child, Bird, reveals a secret that Arturo and Snow had kept from her: they were "passing for white." This development sparks a change in Boy, a change that Oyeyemi explores masterfully in the second half of the novel. Through her questioning of herself and how her views do not jibe with the reality of the situation, Boy's character is shown in a sympathetic yet ultimately negative way. She is, after all, "the product of her times."
Yet Boy, Snow, Bird is not exclusively about mid-20th century racism. Through its use of sometimes magical events and especially through the metaphor of the mirror that haunts the Whitmans throughout the novel, it becomes several things: a contemporary fairy tale, an exploration of the nature of beauty, and a look at the yearning that people have to be something different than what they are. Oyeyemi delves into these themes with prose that is a joy to read, as each descriptive passage and metaphoric image build upon each other, like the gentle lapping of waves, until it finally crashes into the reader at full force.
It is difficult to pick out any structural weaknesses, as Oyeyemi does an excellent job with plot, characterization, prose, and theme. Perhaps there is a surfeit of each, causing the reader to pause overlong at a passage, possibly missing some key element in her consideration of another, but on the whole, Boy, Snow, Bird is one of those rare novels whose exploration of touchy cultural issues does not overwhelm the intimacy of the characters' situations. It contains universal themes, yet without sacrificing the personal qualities that endear themselves to many readers. It simply is one of the best novels released this year and deserves to be discussed at length by a wide diversity of readers.