There are lots of authors who like to turn to fairy tales and folklore for their inspiration, but none of them (that I know of, anyway) are quite like Helen Oyeyemi. In White is for Witching, in Icarus Girl, in Mr. Fox, she takes French folklore and Yoruba tales and Greek and Cuban mythology and she mixes in some really deep, weird questions about culture and ethnicity and identity and being the Other, and she comes out with what I might call some of the most interesting horror stories I’ve ever read. The writer she seems most kin to is Shirley Jackson: they both have that sense of something being deeply off about who people are below the surface and what is really going on. But Oyeyemi does it in a multiculturally uncanny context Jackson only brushed in one or two of her stories. And she keeps getting better, at least structurally speaking.
Set in the 1950s, Boy, Snow, Bird opens on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, with a young white woman named Boy Novak running away from her gruesomely abusive rat-catcher father. She takes a bus at random to the end of the line, to Flax Hill, Massachusetts, and there she meets a jewelry maker and widower, Arturo Whitman, with a beautiful daughter named Snow, “a medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost.” Boy marries Arturo, despite her misgivings about becoming an evil stepmother, and all seems well until their own daughter, Bird, is born, and the nurse tells Boy, “That little girl is a Negro.” After a brief, intense struggle with the matriarch of the family, the truth comes out: the Whitmans are light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. Arturo’s first wife’s family was the same, and when Snow was born light-skinned, she had praise and privilege heaped on her that Boy knows Bird will never have: When whites look at her,” she writes of Snow, “they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl — we don’t see a colored girl standing there. The joke’s on us.” Assailed by jealousy that her own daughter will never have the love and privilege Snow has, she sends Snow to live with her Aunt Clara, who in her turn was also sent away as a child for “being dark.”
The second part of the book is narrated by thirteen-year-old Bird, who finds a cache of letters Snow wrote to her. The sisters reach out to each other, and more secrets are uncovered. The final section of the book returns the narrative voice to Boy — and I find it interesting that the beautiful Snow never has a chance to speak to us herself.
This novel is very complex, and it plays not only with the obvious Snow White theme (vanity, beauty, mirrors, motherhood) but with a lot of other fairy-tale motifs that put little girls either in danger or in and out of mirrors or both (Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” are just three.) There are trolls and Anansi stories and ghostly presences. These manifestations of the uncanny, though, are anchored by the extremely real: Emmett Till, Ebony magazine, the Black Panthers.
Mirrors are a particularly complicated trope. Boy begins the entire novel this way:
Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, 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.
Boy is presented as vain, always looking for her own reflection, in picture frames, in a bronze pitcher, in the back of a spoon. But note the commonality: all those reflections are distorted — convex, concave. She doesn’t know what she really looks like, only the way people react to her.
Snow and Bird have the opposite experience with mirrors: they aren’t there at all. “Sometimes mirrors can’t find me,” says Bird. “I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but often enough.” Her explanation is that either she must not be human or that someone must have a grudge against her — “wishing and willing me out of sight.” Snow has the same experience, but a different explanation. “My reflection can’t be counted on, she’s not always there,” Snow writes. “But I am, so maybe she’s not really me.” This, of course, is about being seen: how is vanity possible if you’re invisible to cultural standards of beauty? How can you see yourself in the mirror if society’s mirror won’t reflect you? This obliquely reflects Snow and Bird’s grandmother’s experience of living in segregated Jim Crow society:
All the high-class places we were allowed to go to, they were imitations of the places we were kept out of — not mawkish copies, most of it was done with perfect taste, but sitting at the bar or at the candlelit table you’d try to imagine what dinnertime remarks the real people were making… yes, the real people at the restaurant two blocks away, the white folks we were shadows of, and you’d try to talk about whatever you imagined they were talking about, and your food turned to sawdust in your mouth.
Who’s the fairest of them all?
This excellent novel — the guts and violence of fairy tales, used in service of the reality of the politics of race and identity — is slightly marred at the end when Oyeyemi tries to parallel this experience with gender, and it doesn’t work. However, the rest of the novel is in such an original voice and style, and is so interesting to read, that this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it might in a book that wasn’t so slippery and so true. So much contemporary literary fiction is so samey, and this is not that. This is something else. I really recommend you read it and find out what.