Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fairest of them all (Boy, Snow, Bird)

Continuing my newfound resolve to get back to reviewing more books, here comes another one: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

(CHECKING MY PRIVILEGE: Ms. Oyeyemi is a British woman of Nigerian/Yoruban descent. Take that, white patriarchy!)

If I remember correctly, I had put Boy, Snow, Bird on my wishlist because I had read one or more reviews which alluded to the fact that it was a modern retelling of Snow White, or at least that that old fairy tale provided the spine for a story which in turn encompassed much more. I have a big old soft spot for folklore and retellings thereof (Twice Upon a Time being a prime, recent example) so I made plans to check the story out for myself as soon as I could.

There is, in fact, much more to Boy, Snow, Bird than a riff on Snow White. The novel runs through numerous allusions to the works of the Brothers Grimm and others, sometimes only in a passing reference, sometimes in developing the recurring themes of the story. If nothing else, anyone with enthusiasm for fairy tales can find some fun playing spot-the-hat-tip. But more importantly, Oyeyemi takes the building blocks of Snow White - the sweet beloved girl, the wicked step-mother, the magic mirror - and uses them as jumping off points for incisive examinations of identity and reinvention, about the painful legacies of families in both momentary explosive violence and slowly decaying corrosion.

I finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago and I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with a way to encapsulate it for a review. My gut reaction is to declare it "good, but artsy" where "artsy" is one of my personal codewords for "self-consciously literary English-major bait" and also, perhaps, "pretentious"? But it's really hard to call something out for being pretentious without sounding pretentious as heck myself, since it basically requires me to say "the average person might not get it; I mean, I got it, and I liked it, but I can see how some people might not." Yeesh.

Still, it's hard to shake the old habits that run deep. I grew up on stories full of plot and incident and fantastical elements where the primary aim was to make the reader feel, and later I had to learn how to appreciate stories where nothing much happens and all of what does happen is grounded in reality and the primary aim is to make the reader think. So I always feel obliged to point out when a book falls into the latter category, presenting mundane things through subjective perspectives and ending with no real conclusion or closure. Some books are wide open to interpretation because life is open to interpretation, some don't have neat and tidy endings because life doesn't have neat and tidy endings. I get that, and I'm sure you get that, and I think it's an equally valid choice to seek out books that are superficial and straightforward for pure escapism, and valid as well to seek out books that are engaging or obtuse or however else you want to quantify the other side of the coin. (All assuming that you have actually gotten an education along the line and learned how to think critically and evaluate the distinction for yourself; believe me, if my kids ever say that a book they have to read for school is boring or doesn't make sense they will get an earful from me. As long as I've read the same book and know whereof I speak.)

So, pretentious or not, I dug the story for its ambiguity about where to draw the line between magical outlooks and mental illness, and for its takes on gender and race, and I dug the language employed to evoke the complicated, nuanced layers of things. I liked it because it's a hard book to recommend, and I'd probably recommend it to others for the same reason. Certain others, at least. You know who you are.

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