No one ever warned me about mirrors
Helen Oyeyemi (2014) "Boy, Snow, Bird". New York, River Head Books, Penguin, 309 pages, $27.95. Hardcover, ISBN 978-1-59461-139-9. Reviewed by Sheldon G. Weeks
Helen Oyeyemi is a rising star among world writers. Her Mr Fox (2011) was rated one of The New York Times one hundred best books of the year. It continues her fascination with the interfaces between myth, reality and imagination, this time with a reinterpretation of the story of Bluebeard. Granta last year ranked her as one of the best young British writers. Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984. Her parents moved to England when she was four, but they summered regularly in Nigeria. She studied political science at Cambridge University and in 2007 enrolled for a Master of Fine Arts at Columbia University in New York City, but dropped out because she found it too cramped. Since then she has had more time for traveling and writing.
White is for Witching (2009) a.k.a "Pie-kah" won the Somerset Maugham Award in 2010. In it she continued her exploration of the unknown (bordering on magic realism or gothic tales). Oyeyemi had gone to Paarl, South Africa, as a volunteer in a centre for young children living with HIV and AIDS and was inspired by learnings there to write this novel.
Oyeyemi’s second novel, "The Opposite House" (2008) was set in London, Lagos and Cuba, with a fourth leg with Emily Dickinson (who lived in her family’s opposite house in Amherst, Massachusetts) and a somewherehouse of Oyeyemi’s creation. In it she continued her exploration of the role of spirits in our lives.
The Icarus Girl (2006), her first novel, was hailed as an extraordinary work of imagination about three worlds--the spirit, the bush and ours. Being the twin that is alive haunts Jess. It was published by Bloomsbury when she was eighteen, having written it while doing her A-levels, making her their youngest author.
Boy, Snow, Bird is set entirely in New York City and northeastern Massachusetts. It spans events between 1902, 1930, and 1950s through to the mid-1960s. Some critics have commented that Oyeyemi is at her best writing about what she knows and has experienced, but as a child of the 1980s and Nigeria and UK, a novel like this one is a work of creative imagination.
The opening line reflects the many levels of multiple images achieved and alluded to by mirrors, "No one ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them and believed they were trustworthy." What we see, and what others see, most often is not the same. Our perceptions are coloured by so many factors. Oyeyemi is delving into a number of dimensions, including parenting, lost mothers, rejected daughters, and the consequences of changed identity, whether gender or race.
In all parts of the world where a colour bar has separated people, where miscegenation has been pursued, and a new group created, there have always been the few, due to the power of genetics, who could escape their prescribed and perceived position in society by passing as a member of the dominant white society. To explore "passing" in the United States through the lives of three generations in an extended family, Oyeyemi had to set her novel before 1964.
It is divided into three unequal parts. The first is "Boy," who is a young, blonde, white woman, the abused daughter of Frank Novak, a rat catcher in the Lower East Side of New York City. She eventually, at 20, decides she has had enough and flees northeast, arriving in Flax Hill (a place like Brattleboro), an artists’ community outside Boston, in a blizzard. In a series of accidents she finds a home in a building occupied by fifteen young women, makes new friends, finds work in a bookstore run by an Englishwoman who’d escaped to Flax Hill, and eventually falls in love.
When Boy and Arturo Whitman first meet there is friction. He tells her she should "go back to New York." Why? Because he felt she didn’t understand people in Flax Hill. "I’ll keep it simple. People make beautiful things here. We’re interested in the process, not the end product. Now you -- you don’t have what it takes to start that kind of process, let alone see it through. So. There’s nothing here for you."
Boy falls for Arturo Whitman, a craftsman and former academic and history professor, who now makes his living designing and forging unique jewelry. His wife, Julia an opera singer, died in childbirth, leaving a beautiful daughter, Snow. Arturo, accepts Boy’s condition for marriage, that Snow not be her responsibility. Snow, who is now seven, is sent to live with Aunt Clara in Boston. When Boy and Arturo have a child, it is another daughter, they name her Bird--a name that could suit either sex. A nurse in the hospital exclaims: "That little girl is a Negro." As are Arturo and his parents, Gerald and Olivia, who have been passing. In their circle if a black child arrives, it is sent south to live with relatives. Thus the secret of their identities is maintained.
In the second part Bird is the narrator. She is now thirteen. Bird recognizes that, "I accidently brought truth to light." Bird would give a lot to know why she and her mom have those eyes--the eyes of people who come from some place strange they can never go back to."
Snow is now twenty and for the first time the two sisters exchange correspondence. These letters from Snow to Bird are the rare glimpses into her take on life and her being sent away from her father, stepmother and sister. The third part of this novel actually returns to allow Boy to continue her story.
There are other characters that are important to the tale that drift in and out. One is a boy from the Lower East Side, Charlie Vacie, who perhaps shared Boy’s love for him. Another is Mia Cambrini, a journalist always aspiring to discover and write a scoop. Mia saw a possible story in Boy’s missing mother. Boy, has no birth certificate, or so her father had told her, has always claimed she has no mother. Bird has a boyfriend, Louis Chen. When he is labelled a Vietcong, Bird fights for him.
Oyeyemi is skilled at letting happenings, dialogue and time convey content rather than describing and interpreting. There is magic in her realism. Likewise, Snow is not Disney’s or the fairytale’s Snow White.
The last part of the novel is telescoped, and compressed, and then ends abruptly. The reader is left hanging in space. There is no postscript or epilogue to effect real closure. I expected Snow to have the last word. Maybe she will?
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