Picador £12.99

Book review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

 

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors”, begins the girl narrator of Boy, Snow, Bird – a novel that is primarily concerned with looks and surfaces, and the deceits that they can conceal.

Helen Oyeyemi’s novels are often rich with myth: Grimms’ fairytales and Yoruba folklore in Mr Fox (2011); maternal hauntings in White is for Witching (2009); a dead twin/imaginary friend, in The Icarus Girl (2005). This, her fifth novel, echoes the story of Snow White, but refracted as if by a hall of mirrors so that one surface may show a wicked stepmother while another reveals a beautiful princess.

Boy Novak is 20 years’ old, striking and very, very fair, when she leaves New York and her father. Frank Novak, “the rat catcher”, is as frightening a character as any Grimm Brothers’ witch. He keeps blinded rats in the basement, and is no kinder to his daughter, who runs from home straight on to the next bus, which happens to be going to the small town of Flax Hill.

Immediately, fairness of face becomes an issue, as Boy gets a job as a blonde-for-hire on a cruise for rich people, and meets a fellow-beauty and trainee reporter who becomes her best friend. “[Mia] was very protective of her future self – she called her ‘Mia the Crone’ – and didn’t want her to get horribly depressed when people stopped letting her get away with things.” Looks are not everything, exactly – but they’re a lot.

Boy gets a job in a local bookshop and meets a man, Arturo Whitman, who resents her aloof blonde appearance at the same time as falling in love with it. She doesn’t love him, but she is bewitched by his daughter Snow – another motherless child – and marries him. And then things get even weirder.

It is hard to say what happens next without revealing a major plot spoiler, but when Boy and Arturo’s daughter, Bird, is born, a mirror cracks, and reveals that the Whitman family are not at all what they seem. But who is the wicked one here? Is it Arturo’s mother: a “pretty good example of lasting beauty, right down to the creases that ran around [her] forehead and lips, some soft, like folds in cream, others deeply scored”? Is it Boy, who sends Snow away to protect her own child? Or is there something sinister about Snow – the fairy-tale beauty who is worshipped by all around her?

As Bird takes over the narration, the story becomes more magical and less realist, with talking spiders and two sisters who share a secret: they can’t be seen in mirrors. All allegories for what sets “Us” against “Them”. Again, for spoilers’ sake, I can’t reveal who “Us” and “Them” are; but in this story about what mothers do to daughters, and vice versa, and how appearances trick us all, it is worth remembering what Bird says about fair Snow when they are finally reunited. “Does she know that she does this to people? Dumb question. This is something that we do to her.”

Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral