The risks that Helen Oyeyemi takes in her fifth novel, “Boy, Snow, Bird,” are astonishing in their boldness.
“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors,” begins the narrator, Boy, a pale white girl in Manhattan’s East Village whose rat-catcher father beats her until she runs away to a small town in Massachusetts and marries a man she doesn’t love. It is 1953. The man she doesn’t love, a widower, has a small child, also very pale and very beautiful, and very beloved by all, named Snow.
In time, Boy and her husband have their own child, Bird, who is black; this is how Boy discovers that her husband and much of his family have been passing for white. Urged by her husband’s family to give up her telltale baby, Boy instead makes a hard choice: She sends the beloved Snow away.
“Snow is not the fairest of them all,” Boy insists. “And the sooner [they all] understand that, the better.” Love, that magical power, makes Boy protective and destructive at once.
If the reader hasn’t figured it out, this turning point makes it clear that Oyeyemi is reworking “Snow White” and that the famously pretty, beleaguered title character may not have had all the information. Moreover, by transforming “Snow White” into a tale that hinges on race and cultural ideas about beauty — the danger of mirrors indeed — Oyeyemi finds a new, raw power in the classic. In her hands, the story is about secrets and lies, mothers and daughters, lost sisters and the impossibility of seeing oneself or being seen in a brutally racist world.
Mirrors, here, never do their job. They do talk, but they lie, and they cheat, and they function more as screens of cultural projections than as neutrally reflective surfaces. Eventually, the mother and her divided daughters — one so white, the other so black — must reckon with one another and the violence the mirror has caused.
That Oyeyemi, a British writer on the cusp of 30, is taking on a time and place so distant to her and that she so elegantly and inventively turns a classic fairy tale inside out will surprise no one familiar with her earlier work. From her debut novel, “The Icarus Girl,” through 2012’s “Mr. Fox,” Oyeyemi has drawn on mythology, fairy tales, the gothic and all manner of supernatural narrative traditions to get at the place where individual psychology collides with culture.
Her work abounds in twins, doubles, haunted houses and the like but also in mixed-race characters, grief, exile and what might be described as the fickle magic of identity. In her second novel, “The Opposite House,” one Santeria goddess character lives in a house with two doors: one that leads to London, the other to Lagos; a perfectly made supernatural element that functions simultaneously as an agent of the book’s surrealism and a metaphor for the character’s prismatic self. Liberated by the irreal, Oyeyemi moves at will anywhere she wants to go.
Time and space dissolve in her hybrid forms, and they dissolve for her as a writer as well. Does Flax Hill, the town to which Boy flees, really seem like a Massachusetts suburb in 1953? Was any American exterminator ever called a “rat-catcher”? How is it that Boy and her working-class father live in a house on the Lower East Side, where a streetcar often goes “whispering along its track”? There were few above-ground streetcars left in New York in the ‘50s, and none of the transportation in New York has ever been known to whisper. But then again, does it matter? How can it, in a world where both Snow and Bird grow up to find that mirrors often won’t reflect them at all? In this self-conscious construction, emotions are the only elements that have gravity, weight and three dimensions. Everything else is once upon a time.
By which I mean that, well, I suppose I do find that reality matters — some. As the novel’s fabulism piles up and complexities become ever more complex, some of the material, such as a sexual identity and transgender surprise late in the day, feels as if it hails from a psychic as well as a physical dimension where even the most willing reader might not be able to suspend her disbelief. However, one doesn’t wish to complain about a writer having too much of an imagination; there are far worse curses, or perhaps they are blessings, to be borne. At heart, and apart from the sometimes overgrown paths down which Oyeyemi leads the reader, “Boy, Snow, Bird” is an attempt to repair the fractured love triangle among its eponymous characters.
This is Oyeyemi’s keenest and most moving transformation of a fairy tale we all know: the villain in her “Snow White” is the magic mirror, not the stepmother. In this way, her novel might be seen as a cautionary tale, as many fairy tales are. The wise child must see through the distorting mirror if she hopes ever to be reunited with her mother and her sister, and live happily ever after.
D’Erasmo is the author of “The Art of Intimacy” and the forthcoming novel “Wonderland.”
Boy, Snow, Bird
By Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead: 320 pp., $27.95