2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Boy, Snow, Bird

** Unlike any of my other reviews, this review contains numerous spoilers. **

Boy Novak flees an abusive home and carves out a life for herself in a small 1950s American town in this novel based very loosely on Snow White. Boy falls in love with widower Arturo and his perfect, beautiful daughter, Snow. Boy and Arturo have their own daughter, Bird. When Bird is born with brown skin, Boy discovers that Arturo’s family is black, passing as white. Boy, Snow, Bird is a story about how societal pressures can create deep damage to individuals and families, the unintended abuse we heap upon even those we love, and the secrets we keep from one another and ourselves . Boy, Snow, Bird explores colorism, racism, gender, and class in America through the relationships between these three strange but believable women. Read my First Look here. 

Read more about passing in the 1950s through NPR’s look at “A Chosen Exile: Black People Passing in White America”.

I’ll say right up front that the final two chapters in this book are terrible. Especially if you are sensitive to trans depictions, I do not recommend this book or even my review of it.

Ignoring the end, this was a 4/5 book for me for a number of reasons. Boy is one of the most interesting narrators I’ve ever come across. She fascinated me as she worked through her abusive childhood, her obsession with Snow, Arturo’s betrayal, her self-hatred, and her fierce protection of Bird. She struggles as her beliefs on race and gender progress throughout her life, and she suffers guilt for her own lies, prejudice, and choices. Oyeyemi beautifully depicts how people trapped inside lies can justify so much internal and external hate and abuse; she does some wonderful things with mirrors that heighten the intensity of these themes in a dreamy, fairytale way. The writing is nuanced and compassionate, the exploration of race, colorism, and familial love is delicate and heartbreaking. If this was the impression the book had left me, I would devote more time to reviewing the positives.

But everything is ruined when Oyeyemi introduces transgenderism. I’m going to use that term, even though Oyeyemi’s depiction is so mishandled, I don’t think transgender is an appropriate term. Gender dysphoric is probably more what she was going for, but the character reads as trans so that’s how I’ll address it. The last two chapters of this book are a mess. You know how Season 2 of American Horror Story was just the most? Asylum + torture + conversion therapy + Frankenstein/Nazi experiments + zombies +serial killer + aliens….. That’s how the end of Boy, Snow, Bird felt.

Suddenly and without warning, after most of the plot has wrapped itself up,  it turns out that Boy’s abusive father was a happy, healthy lesbian woman who was raped, gave birth to Boy, and then stopped seeing himself as a woman and transitioned to live as a man.  The takeaway at the final two chapters is that sexual violence is the cause of transgenderism, transgenderism and gender-hatred are a reason and justification for child abuse, and Boy’s acceptance and forgiveness is THE CURE for transgenderism.

As bad as that is, the addition of this sudden and shallow plotline doesn’t even make sense within the overall theme. The pattern Oyeyemi has set for us is that society creates a problem, a person adapts to that problem to protect themselves/their loved ones, but adherence to that adaptation causes it’s own damage. And good people learn from this and stop hurting each other. This plays out in Boy’s rejection of Snow, in Arturo’s family, in minor plot points in the small town.  But if society caused Boy’s father to suffer discrimination (as a lesbian) and violence (as a woman who is raped), the adaptation is to hate your womanhood and transition to living as a man.

It is not that Boy’s father is passing as a man, or that he lied about his birth sex, or that he tries to raise Boy as a boy (the closer paralell to Arturo’s family trying to raise their kids and grandkids as white). No, Boy is damaged because her alcoholic father beats her, straps her to chairs, and tortures her with starving rats. Sexual assault doesn’t explain gender hate to the point of transition, and rape nor transition explain child abuse. The characters come really, really close to treating his rape not only as explanation but even as a justification for his insanity (insanity= his gender presentation and his violent abusiveness). Boy’s father never suffers or atones for his abuse of Boy on the page. He does not change, in fact the last time we see him he has attacked and held Bird hostage to his rambling in a jarring section that left me feeling ill.  Rather, the end of this rushed plot are that Boy, Snow, and Bird are going to seek him out to comfort him back to womanhood. Boy is convinced that if she forgives him and loves him, she’ll be able to reach the mother ‘that is still hiding somewhere in there”.  wtf.

I think Oyeyemi was trying to compare racial passing to gender passing, compare the societal and individual preference to whiteness we see so prevalent in Boy’s society to the societal preference for males. I think her attempt was well intentioned, and horribly mishandled. Even if I could forgive what she’s written, which I don’t, the new plot was artistically entirely unnecessary. Oyeyemi wanted to explore bigotry, secrets, abuse, and the long-term effect on generations of a family, but this book had already accomplished that before the reintroduction of Boy’s father.

I will read Oyeyemi again, because I like her writing and I think she was overambitious, more than intentionally careless or even ignorant. If this had been without the final two chapters, it could have been one of my top books of the year, a 4/5 cats rating at least. The end just poisons everything.