As Granta magazine allowed last year, Helen Oyeyemi is unquestionably one of the best young British novelists in the business, and though her fiction is largely literary, she’s evidenced an interest in speculative elements. From the haunted house in White is for Witching to the magical realism of Mr Fox, Oyeyemi has incorporated her fascination with the fantastic into every novel to bear her name to date—up to and including her new book, Boy, Snow, Bird. Here, however, the uncanny is arrived at through character rather than narrative.
Boy, to begin with, is not your average protagonist. First things first: she’s a girl, born and raised in the Big Apple by her papa—or the rat catcher, as Boy calls him. He has “the cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind, or he’ll thump the back of your head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around on the floor, stunned.” Boy does her best to suffer the rat catcher’s casual violence in silence, but in time the usual abuse takes on an especially distressing tenor.
The unpredictability of his fist didn’t mean he was crazy. Far from it. Sometimes he got awfully drunk, but never to a point where he didn’t seem to know what he was doing. He was trying to train me. To do what, I don’t know. I never found out, because I ran away almost as soon as I turned twenty.
The folks of Flax Hill, Massachusetts don’t go out of their way to welcome our girl into their tiny town, but Boy is undeterred by the cold shoulder they show her:
I found it easy to disregard the suggestion that I didn’t belong in Flax Hill. The town woke something like a genetic memory in me… after a couple of weeks, the air tasted right. To be more specific, the town took on a strong flavour of palinka, that fiery liquor I used to sneak capfuls of whenever the rat catcher forgot to keep it under lock and key. But now, here, clear smoke rose from my soul every time I breathed in. A taste of the old country. Of course I knew better than to mention this to anybody.
Little by little, Boy wins the locals over. She makes a forever friend in Mia, the resident reporter, through whom she’s introduced to Arturo: a wayward widower with a gorgeous daughter. Snow is “an extraordinary-looking kid. A medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost. She was like a girl in a Technicolour tapestry,” and though Boy eventually develops feelings for her father, she falls for the girl first.
The flag stuffed into the back of my wardrobe was there because someone had once draped it around my shoulders in such a way that the touch of his fingers made me feel like a million bucks. That’s not how it was with Arturo. He held me so tightly that numbness stretched all the way down my arms and only let go a few minutes after he did. It wasn’t as nice a feeling as the flag around my shoulders. But I felt more certain of it because it lasted longer.
In her heart of hearts Boy imagines marrying another man, but for the foreseeable, Arturo will do, to be sure. Things between them even seem to be settling into a satisfying pattern until their daughter Bird is born. But Bird, to Boy’s surprise, hasn’t inherited her mother’s milky skin. She’s “a Negro,” as the neighbourhood nurse notes, and sixty years or so ago, that kind of crap mattered.
To her credit, I guess, Boy doesn’t disown Bird—and she holds true to Arturo, too, despite his having hid his genetic heritage. Boy takes her frustrations out on Snow instead: she summarily ships her spoiled stepdaughter off to Boston for a week that turns into a period of years. “Snow is not the fairest of them all,” our protagonist tells herself, “and the sooner she and Olivia and all the rest of them understand that, the better.”
Boy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel, and it just might be her finest. It’s certainly her most readily accessible. Its setting—New England in the brisk fifties and simmering sixties—lends itself well to the demonstration of accepted prejudice that the text depends upon, and the plot is deft in its testing of Boy’s unhappy family.
These are universal themes indeed—small minds in small towns in small times and the dysfunction of the nuclear unit—but what makes Boy, Snow, Bird so special is its magical cast of characters: from the titular trio, all of whom come to question their reflections, through the supporting folks who flit in and out of the fiction. Not all of the following are especially pleasant, but Arturo, Olivia, Mia and the rat catcher are rendered exceptionally well, with wit and insight, wisdom and sympathy.
You might not like these people—a few are in fact absolutely ghastly—but you’ll believe in them all, I warrant. How they try and tragically fail to relate to one another proves particularly powerful, as exemplified by the perversely gratifying last act, which brings the whole family back together for a difficult Thanksgiving dinner. The tightening sense of tension Oyeyemi sews into said scene is incredible; I couldn’t have stopped reading at this point if I’d wanted to, in case something simply snapped in my absence.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a beautiful book about ugly things, ultimately—like the decidedly unwonderful ways prejudices can express themselves—and though racial discrimination is its foremost focus, Oyeyemi also addresses the conflicts between classes as well as certain questions of gender. The entire enterprise is upsetting and unsettling, yet Oyeyemi depicts these all too typical difficulties with such conviction that there’s something curiously beautiful about the tale—beautiful and true, too.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.