“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.”