Fairytales of racism

A review of Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. This Granta Best of Young British Novelist deserves better editing

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

Boy, Snow, Bird Helen Oyeyemi

Picador, pp.308, £12.99, ISBN: 9781447237136

A preview of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird appeared in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists issue in April last year, the decennial list identifying 20 writers under 40 as the names to watch. The previous four novels of the Nigerian-born Oyeyemi (who was first published at the age of 18) revolve around deeply psychological retellings of folk tales, laced with questions of race, gender and, above all, youth. Her protagonists tend to be ‘seers’, characters somehow displaced from their environment and thereby privileged to construct their own story — the lot of the lonely novelist. Patterned on the tale of Snow White, this latest book, Boy, Snow, Bird turns the seers into the surveyed, characters caught in surreal landscapes which flex and tense around them, fusing the roles of the victim and the villain.

Blessed with the sort of names usually reserved for the children of celebrities, Boy, Snow and Bird are three women at the centre of a New England family saga set in the 1950s and 1960s. Boy Novak, an ice-blonde tough kid from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, escapes her abusive ‘rat-catcher’ father and starts a new life in Flax Hill — ‘a town of specialists’, from potters to cake decorators. There she marries the doleful Arturo Whitman, a jewellery maker whose main appeal is his beautiful daughter, Snow — as pure and white as her name, ‘poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it’.

All is domestic bliss until Boy’s daughter Bird is born ‘safe, well, and dark’, revealing the racial secret of the knowingly named ‘Whitmans’. Loose strands knit into place, as Snow and Boy are revealed to be the prized ‘white rabbits’ in the Whitmans’ ‘generations of calculated breeding […] drawing strict distinctions between degrees of colour’. For Boy, the culpably perfect Snow now seems a saccharine threat to the begrudged baby, and the young mother is cast headlong into the role of wicked stepmother.

Slipping between the voices of Boy and Bird, the plot offers moments of eloquent symmetry as characters pass folk tales back and forth, rewriting them into the tangle of their own lives. As demonstrated in Oyeyemi’s 2011 novel Mr Fox, such tales would be worthy of a short-story collection in their own right. However, they are at odds with a novel loose in its skin, shifting between the naïve dimensions of a fairytale and the complex tropes of an author all too aware of her writing as writing.

Oyeyemi has mastered the first-person voice of adolescent precociousness, but the characters remain lightly sketched. There are moments of virtuosic understatement, such as listing the ways characters regard their own reflection — while Boy can lose herself in the image of her face scooped in a spoon, Arturo’s mother ‘avoids her own gaze and looks at her hair’. Yet, in the same way that Snow and Bird sometimes find their own image missing from mirrors, the book suffers a malaise of blind spots; not least its indecisive flirting with magical realism, and the half-hearted topical references that intercept its fairytale timelessness. Fundamentally the book suffers from an affliction imposed on many youthful talents — woeful under-editing, as publishers tiptoe round the page, wary of throwing away the sentence that might just define a generation.

This prompts the question of whether the accolade of ‘Best Young Novelist’ is really such a blessing. Oyeyemi’s style is undeniably youthful. Indeed, when the narration is passed back to Boy as middle-aged mother, age has reduced her to nothing but a vehicle for plot — all vigorous, questing naivety is discarded in favour of a gasping series of telenovela-worthy revelations. We harp on about the Young British Artists growing bald or voting Conservative, bound to their youth like to a sinking ship. Might a ‘Best Young Novelist’ be condemned to the same fate?

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