Friday, February 05, 2016

Book 8: Not a punch but a dagger.

I finished Boy, Snow, Bird two days ago, actually, and my delay in writing about is only partially because the last two nights I was exhausted and didn't feel like doing much of anything by the time 8 o'clock rolled around and I had to sit in the boys' room while Mr F fell asleep.

The other part of the delay was that I wanted to think about the book. Boy, Snow, Bird is the kind of book that's hard to describe, both as a story and as how it affected me.

The storyline is this: Boy, the main character, runs away from her dad, who we mostly know as "the rat catcher." Boy ends up in Flax Hill, where she meets Arturo and Arturo's daughter, Snow.  It's a little bit of a spoiler only to tell you that Boy and Arturo fall in love and get married and have a daughter, Bird.

There are other things that I could tell about the storyline, twists and turns and dips and dives, but telling them would spoil the story too much, because at nearly every turn, Boy, Snow, Bird has a surprise waiting. It's the story equivalent of a kaleidoscope, or a detailed diorama that everywhere you look you notice something too new and too perfect, and saying too much about it takes a bit of that magic away.

There's magic, too, in the book, in both the literal and figurative sense. Mirrors behave oddly, it's possible that spiders talk, and people are not always what they seem, both literally and figuratively, too. The story slides in and out of these magical moments without even the slightest hint that they are unusual in anyway.

Most of the story is told from Boy's perspective, with the middle part being narrated by Bird, and neither of them are always likeable or always unlikeable, but they are some of the most interesting characters I've read in a long time.

At it's heart, Boy, Snow, Bird is a kind of semi-modern (it's set in the 40s, 50s, and 60s) take on a fairy tale -- sometimes literally: Snow is practically Snow White, and Boy is frequently compared to an evil stepmother (although it's not clear that she's evil, exactly).  There are even a sort of fairy godmother.  It's a neat take on the genre: magical realism meets fairytale; it's like the regular world got a quick sprinkle of fairydust: not enough to make it into some Disney world, but enough to make it seem like that's possible.

It's what's lurking down below the surface of the book that really makes you think, though.  Through the story, Helen Oyeyemi brings up issues of race and identity, violence and progress, and relationships.  There's always a hint of danger boiling below the surface, from the horrifying way the rat catcher works (he uses half-starved rats with their eyes pulled out to lure the other rats out) to the near-fight that Bird and her would-be boyfriend nearly get into with a stranger who accuses the boyfriend of being a Viet Cong, to the Thanksgiving dinner near the end of the story that actually made my skin ache a bit with how tense and terrible it was.  There's also love, but it's always a strained sort of love, as people are keenly aware of the imperfections in those they love, and rather than loving them for those flaws, have to actively work to get around them.

I've read books recently that packed a wallop of an emotional punch -- Salvage The Bones, for example, with the devastating look at a dirt-poor family in the week before Katrina hits -- but Boy Snow, Bird contains all that force not in a giant blow, but almost like a dagger in your mind: it sneaks in and before you know it, it's a part of you.  I keep rolling over in my mind scenes and stories, like the one where Bird claims to have told two stories to the spiders in her room, the second to get the spiders to not be angry about the first.  The book contains lots of little fable-esque stories in it: the characters are always telling each other stories, some of them fantastic fairy tales themselves, others based on what would be the characters' real lives, but which still have a strange, ethereal element to them. There's so much of the book to unpack that I might never stop thinking about it. Which is a good thing, for a story this wonderful.

By Helen Oyeyemi:

PS/Update: I read this book so long after bookmarking it that I remembered almost nothing about it. Which is good, because if you read the description on Amazon it gives away some of the big secrets in the book and the book is WAY better without that. So if you buy/borrow it I suggest you do so without reading the spoilery description.  COME ON BOOKSELLERS, don't give away the farm.

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