Some of my very favourite reads are ones that intricately incorporate rich myth, folklore and fairytale, and Helen Oyeyemi’s novels are nothing if not characterised by her abundant use of all of the above, exploring territories and cultures that such historically mythical possibilities for narratives have become deeply embedded. From the central ghost story of her amazing White is for Witching and the powerful retelling of the myth of the nefarious Bluebeard in Mr. Fox Oyeyemi consistently demonstrates that which I most love about an author – both a roving fascination with the world’s stories and the varied cultures that birthed them, and a strong tendency to fascinate over a niche of suggestive themes that are distinctly connected throughout their body of work. In Oyeyemi’s case, that niche opens itself as a study on identity and identity’s literal and metaphorical manifestations – the constant presence of mirrors, doubles, triangles, juxtapositions and disappearances – that all feed into Oyeyemi’s exploration of the notion of what happens when we have to live without any sense or confidence of self in a world that isn’t kind.
Boy, Snow, Bird, published 2015, is Oyeyemi’s fifth novel and is no different to its predecessors. On the very first page, we are introduced to the sad situation of Boy, a motherless adolescent trapped in that awkward phase between girhood and womanhood, desperately fleeing her abusive father. Boy, with nothing but a shabby rucksack of clothes and an American flag, jumps on the first bus out of New York, not caring where it takes her as long as it’s away from home. She ends up in the little, unassuming town of Flax Hill.
Here, Boy immediately transforms from the high-fairytale trope of the ill-treated waif daughter and into another, in many ways more surprising, cliché—the drifter of 1950s America, identified by her reliance on temporary jobs and hostels. It is at this moment that we recall Boy informing us of her looks; that strange white-blond hair juxtaposed with her humourless black eyes. This, strange description, reminds me, somewhat uneasily, of her surname – Novak. With all these big hints, I surely can’t be the only one suddenly thinking of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, one of cinema’s most horrifying exploration of disguise and duplicity. In many ways, like Hitchcock himself, Oyeyemi is fascinated not merely by what happens when you attempt to pretend you are who you’re not, but in the fragile lines that fall between who we are and who everyone else is. We are not, after all, all that different.
In Flax Hill, Boy meets and marries Arturo Whitman, hoping to be a good mother to his daughter Snow. This fails, however, when she discovers she is pregnant and gives birth to her own little girl, Bird, who’s arrival causes the narrative to change unexpectedly. Suddenly we’re screaming questions of 50s America’s views on race and class as we learn that the Whitmans are actually a light-skinned black family living unchallenged among whites and, more shockingly, we also learn that the Whitmans have a history of banishing their blacker members to try and keep up appearances, quite literally. The ramifications of this revelation leave Boy – once a beaten and neglected Cinderella – transforming into something darker and more villainous – the evil step-mother of her own piece, who effects a new banishment, sending Snow away to join the blacker Whitmans.
As Boy changes, so does the focus of the narrative, verging away from the fairytale and into something more real and political. When Arturo’s mother, Olivia, explains the gap in worlds of black and whites she describes it in terms of its inherent otherness: “All the high-class places we were allowed to go to, they were imitations of the places we were kept out of … at the candlelit table you’d try and imagine what dinnertime remarks the real people were making … yes, the real people at the restaurant two blocks away, the white folks we were shadows of, and you’d try to talk about whatever you imagined they were talking about, and your food turned to sawdust in your mouth. What was it like in those other establishments? What was it that was so sacred about them, what was it that our being there would destroy? I had to know. I broke the law because I had to know.”
Throughout all of this, Bird and Snow are maturing and becoming more curious of the other’s existence and more determined to break the literal and metaphorical distance that separates them. The power of their innocent, sisterly bond is evident from the passionate letters sent between them, and this narrative completely denounces the more expected tropes of vanished mothers, evil step-mothers and abandoned daughters. Doing what she does best here, Oyeyemi suggests the possibility of a kind of personal and social redemption through the assumption of one’s identity, in that they cohere and are completely malleable when we learn to live with the life that we have fashioned for ourselves. This final understanding breaths life into a beautiful, painful and magical novel that ends on a welcome offering of optimism and safety.
I highly recommend it.
Helen Oyeyemi is a London-based Nigerian-born young author who has been lauded as a Granta best of young British novelist.