By Melinda Guerra
[Editor’s Note: As a rule, we do not reveal major plot points in our fiction reviews. We want to preserve the reading experience for anyone who subsequently chooses to read the book. We don’t publish spoilers. However, in rare cases, a faithful and intellectually honest review of a novel requires the discussion of a key plot point, particularly if that plot point is integral to the reviewer’s opinion of the book and its author. The following review is such a case. If you plan to read Boy, Snow, Bird and don’t want any spoilers revealed, you’ll want to stop reading at the point at which the reviewer gives the spoiler alert.]
I’m not the kind of person who throws books. Books are for reading, for loving and hating, for remembering in convenient and inconvenient moments, for arguing about and defending. But throwing a book seems like a waste of a thing–particularly a thing I want to enjoy its tenure on my bookcase–so I avoid doing so. When a book has been lovely for some 280 pages though, when I’ve loved its characters and deeply appreciated its imagery and whispered “yes” with conviction as an author explained racial tensions in beautiful ways, when I’ve stopped short of dog-earing several pages with perfect paragraphs, and when I’ve excitedly anticipated telling my friends all about the book so they can hurry and read it too, and then a book slams me with a jarringly transphobic ending that manages to be both surprisingly misgendering and incredibly unearned, that’s when I think about throwing a book against a wall. (Note: I settle for kicking it, but even then only after my best friend has–having seen all the enthusiasm and adoration for the story leave my face–already thrown it across the room for me.)
Related, I kicked a book recently.
“Where does character come into it? Just this: I’ve always been pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to. Myself, or my father – whichever option proved most practical. I wouldn’t kill for hatred’s sake; I’d only do it to solve a problem. And only after other solutions have failed. That kind of bottom line is either in your character or it isn’t, and like I said, it develops early. My reflection would give me a slow nod from time to time, but would never say what she was thinking. There was no need.” — page 7
Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird was wonderful in many ways. Pitched as a retelling of Snow White, it tells the story of Boy Novak, a woman who has been raised by a physically and emotionally abusive father, Frank, who is a rat catcher. Frank chokes her until she passes out (for washing her hair in the sink), punches Boy occasionally in the head or kidneys (Frank does the same to his live-in girlfriend, but she leaves him when he starts punching her in the face), drops a casserole dish on her foot (preceding a beating) when a male friend asks to take Boy to the prom, and once drugs her and ties her up in the basement where he holds a starving rat to her face and threatens to let it scar her face (this is punishment for that same male friend saying Boy is beautiful). Boy, shortly after turning twenty, leaves Frank and his unpredictable, compulsive abuse, and buys a bus ticket to as far away as she can, which turns out to be a small Massachusetts town by the name of Flax Hill.
I believe the marketing department sold the book short when they described it as a retelling of Snow White. There are points that hearken back to the fairy tale, but only just: the curious relationships characters have with mirrors, the repetition of the number seven, and Boy’s complicated feelings toward her fair stepdaughter Snow all make their appearances, but a true lover of the story of Snow White would find himself disappointed in how little of the novel was actually retelling the tale he’d heard as a child. What Oyeyemi does instead, however, is brilliant.
It’s the winter of 1953 when Boy runs away, and she finds a room to rent, friends to take her in, and, after a bit, a friend who becomes a husband. When Boy becomes a wife to Arturo, she also becomes a stepmother to his fair daughter, Snow. Boy loves Snow, and finds her a curiosity, but doesn’t seem to know if it is because the Snow’s innocence is inherent to children in a way she never got to experience in her own childhood, or if it’s something more specific to Snow herself. Either way, she loves the child deeply. When Snow is almost eight years old, Boy gives birth to a daughter she names Bird. Bird is born healthy, beautiful, and dark-skinned. The doctor is concerned Boy had slept with an African-American man, and she hadn’t… or she had, but that man was her husband, a man she’d thought was white like she was. Boy discovers her husband’s family had moved north from Louisiana and realized they could “pass” as white in Massachusetts. And so, because it was easier, because being treated as an equal was nice, because now the family could get jobs and memberships and equal education, because they could now vote, they’d let their world in Flax Hill assume their family was white. And because they were light-skinned, because Arturo’s first wife was also light-skinned, because Snow was light-skinned, they’d continued to easily pass for years, right up until Bird’s birth.
“Snow would place a finger on each of Bird’s palms and raise her little hands up when they closed into fists. She’d say: ‘I’m your best friend, Bird.’ Bird seemed to understand and believe this, and her eyes searched for her sister when she was away. Bird adored Snow; everybody adored Snow and her daintiness. Snow’s beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, 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. Olivia just laps up the reactions Snow gets: From this I can only make inferences about Olivia’s childhood and begin to measure the difference between being seen as colored and being seen as Snow. What can I do for my daughter? One day soon a wall will come up between us, and I won’t be able to follow her behind it.
Every word Snow said, every gesture of hers made me want to shake her. Arturo told her I was just tired.” – page 139
Author Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria, but raised in London after her parents moved there when she was four. I don’t know much about the history of race relations in London, but she captures well the ugliness of the way America treated its African-American citizens in the 1950s and 60s, and the way that not only race, but also skin-tone, played a large role in what doors would be opened for an individual. Like the fairy tale to which it is connected by only the finest of threads, Boy, Snow, Bird deals with issues of beauty, but it forces us to look beyond beauty to the perception of beauty, and takes us into a time in American culture where the perception of a person’s race dictated so, so much about the opportunities open to that person.
The novel’s beauty and my enjoyment of most of it made and makes the ending all the more frustrating. And this is where, if you have realized at this point you don’t want to read the spoiler, you ought to stop reading.
After a provocative exploration of beauty, identity, belonging, the various forms of passing, and the ways our sacrifices for and perceptions of each impacts our acceptance of ourselves and others, the final eighteen pages introduce a new plot twist: Frank, the abusive father from whom Boy escaped, had been born a woman, Frances. Raped by a straight man who’d touted the belief lesbians were just waiting “for the right guy,” Frances’ emotional life hardened (one of many ways victims/survivors of sexual assaults can respond in the aftermath of their trauma), and the research she’d been doing (proving that homosexuality isn’t a mental illness) came to an abrupt halt.
Her distress had hardened. You know how Frank says he became Frank? He says he looked in the mirror one morning when he was still Frances, and this man she’d never seen before was just standing there, looking back. Frances washed her face and fixed her hair and looked again and the man was still there, wearing an exact copy of her skirt and sweater. He said one word to her to announce his arrival. What he did was, he flicked the surface of his side of the mirror with his finger and thumb and he said: ‘Hi.’ After that he acted just like a normal reflection; otherwise she would’ve felt like she had to go to a psychiatrist and complain about him. Once she’d established he was there to stay, she named him Frank…” – pages 294, 295
When Boy is confronted with this news, she calls a friend, asking how to break a spell, and is told to make the enchantment inconvenient for the enchanted, to expose their contentment as false. Armed with this, Boy embarks on a trip “to meet Frances…. If there’s still anything left of her.” (page 304).
I have searched for some idea of what Oyeyemi could have been trying to do in her ending, a defense or a statement from her that would at least help explain what she was thinking if not actually correct the issues, and I’ve come up empty-handed. Eighteen pages from the end of the book, Boy gains knowledge of her abusive father’s past and is soon on her way to her abuser to find a way to connect with her mother, who she feels is still “in” Frank. Frank, in these last pages, is alternately depicted as being under a spell or mentally ill and, though he apparently consents to travel to Boy to tell her his history, he doesn’t follow through; another character tells Boy, which means Frank has been outed, his story told for him.
Current cultural conversations about trans issues have been becoming more and more heated in recent months. From the repeated and intentional misgendering of trans individuals, to the all-too-common attacks and murders of those in the trans community, to increasingly popular legislation that strips away common rights and makes public spaces such as bathrooms even less safe for them, trans people face no shortage of discrimination and violence (physical and otherwise). Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird is only two years old, and I have to wonder at the fact neither she nor her editor were concerned about the ending’s hasty revelation that a character belonged to a horribly stigmatized group. And because this revelation is sudden and shallowly tacked on at the end, it succeeds in reinforcing several of the stereotypes against which the transgender community already has to push back: that transgender people are abusers, that gender confirmation surgery is an affordable priority for trans people, that transgender people are “just confused,” and that transgender people are mentally ill, to name a few. Even in the most charitable reading, one which would suggest Oyeyemi wants to extend her exploration of passing to make gender too a thing in which a character has “passed,” the disregard for the character’s declared, preferred gender is astonishing, not to mention such an explanation would still reinforce the harmful myths the trans community faces.
Adding to all of this, Boy suddenly has compassion for her abuser, a matter about which no one seems concerned, and in these pages Frank’s identity as a person who repeatedly abused Boy is suddenly gone, eclipsed by his new narrative role as a problem for Boy to travel back to and solve. Adult survivors of childhood abuse can face a variety of feelings about their abuse and toward their abusers, and to feel a pull toward reconciliation and salvation could fit within the realm of possibilities. But for Oyeyemi to send the survivor on a trip back toward her abuser, armed with a belief she can “free” her mother from Frank (which, again, is completely belittling of trans experiences) is unsafe for Boy: she is walking into a situation which is not only very possibly physically unsafe, but emotionally unsafe as well–Boy has done little to no dealing with the abuse she suffered, and is exposed and vulnerable as she returns.
Oyeyemi could have given us this storyline in a way that felt true and fair. She could have explored the transgender character’s role in the novel and treated it properly. She could have had the victim of childhood abuse at least acknowledge–or have someone acknowledge to her–the context in which she was returning to her abusive parent. But Oyeyemi’s last eighteen pages instead pull together an ending that feels not only unearned and jarringly tone-deaf, but also “tacked on” to the novel, as well. The book, up until the last few chapters, was lovely. Evocative, emotional, and provocative, there were several moments I closed the book only to tell someone else how wonderful it was, and then resumed my reading. It’s a shame the ending so deeply taints the experience of the rest of the story.
Boy, Snow, Bird is available now at GPL.