Thursday, June 18, 2020

Book 238: Boy, Snow, Bird

"I looked into his eyes. He couldn't return the gaze steadily, kept focusing on my left eye, then on my right. I could guess what he was thinking: that there were two of me, that was the explanation, that was why I was acting like this. I had applied this rationale to the rat-catcher the first time he punched me. First you try to find a reason, try to understand what you've done wrong so you can be sure not to do it anymore. After that you look for signs of a Jekyll and Hyde situation, the good and the bad in a person sifted into separate compartments by some weird accident. Then, gradually, you realize that there isn't a reason, and it isn't two people you're dealing with, just one. The same one every time." 

Dates read: June 1-5, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I've always thought that being a step-parent would be a complicated situation to deal with. There are the complicated feelings people have about their exes getting into new relationships, and then on top of that there are the feelings of territoriality about one's children. If one tries to form a close bond with the kids, there are accusations of trying to "replace" the parent. But if one doesn't take an active interest in the kids, then you get the mean/bad step-parent label. It's a very fine line to walk, and it takes work and love by everyone involved to balance it out.

The wicked stepmother is one of the most fundamental tropes of the fairy tale genre, probably most famously exemplified in the stories of Cinderella and Snow White. It is the latter that is subtly retold in Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird. Boy Novak grows up in New York City with a mercurial, abusive father that she calls only "the rat-catcher", and as soon as she can figure out how, runs away as far as the bus line will take her...which turns out to be small-town Massachusetts. Having left behind her childhood sweetheart, she finds herself drawn to Arturo Whitman, a metal smith and widower with a lovely little daughter named Snow. They marry, and things look promising for a while: Boy finds her stepdaughter charming and delightful and soon falls pregnant herself. But when she gives birth, it changes everything. Her own daughter, Bird, is unmistakably of mixed race, revealing that the Whitman family are actually light-skinned African-Americans passing as white.

Arturo's mysterious sister appears, having been sent away as a child when she turned out dark and threatened the family's secret, and offers to take Bird. But Boy doesn't want to part from her own child. Instead, she finds herself increasingly haunted by the adoration lavished on fair-complected Snow by everyone, including the Whitman family, compared to the treatment Bird Snow is sent away instead. As Bird grows up, she and her sister begin a correspondence, and a piece of Boy's past, long since left behind, draws nearer with revelations which could threaten the life she's built for herself.

I'd previously read Oyeyemi's short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and very much enjoyed the way she played with themes, the multiple levels she was operating on at the same time, her richly evocative language. I found many of the same qualities in this novel, and thought Oyeyemi's take on the pervasive issue of race in America was interesting, as she's a black woman but not American. I appreciated the way she subverted expectations by building to what you think is going to be the moment where Boy turns against her stepdaughter by having her inflict the emotional cruelty of exile rather than the usual depiction of verbal and physical abuse. Oyeyemi is a skilled storyteller, and ably walks the line between a story that's interesting and pleasurable to read without sacrificing richer layers of meaning that push you to think. But that ending was...woah.

I'll usually drop some minor spoilers in my reviews if it's critical to my reaction to the book, but even though the ending of this one had a huge impact on my response to it as a whole, I don't feel like it's appropriate to reveal it. But I also can't avoid talking about it, because it honestly made me think less of the book as a whole because of the way it played out. Oyeyemi places a huge, game-changing detail about a character in the last 5-10 pages of the book, barely giving the others time to react to it. The elicited reaction by the other characters doesn't feel quite earned, but the way that this reveal is made, and the details surrounding it are what really bothered me. In particular, I thought it played into some problematic stereotypes about a marginalized community (though I doubt that was the intention). Either way it was a major plot development and placing it where she did in the book was not effective. I thought I'd be able to recommend this book enthusiastically, but while I do still think it's a good book and worth reading, I'm not quite as sure about it as I might have been.

One year ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Sloppy Firsts

Three years ago, I was reading: Spoiled

Four years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

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