Crafty story studies acceptance

Modern fairy tale transcends the genre’s typical trap

Beware of goofy magical character names. Look reader: whimsical fancy is in store! There’s no easier way to shortcut to a character’s complicated innards than with a ridiculous name.

Mass-market fantasy fiction is the rejoinder to that of course but we’re talking here about so-called “serious” fiction. Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel Boy Snow Bird qualifies I suppose though it always remains at arm’s length both casually fun (and funny) and as crafty and knowing as a master’s thesis in creative fiction. It makes her modern fractured fairy tale even more impressive a sort of post-colonial novel written during the ’50s (think Richard Yates) and wrapped up in an old issue of Cosmopolitan . Fans of her last novel the great Mr. Fox will want to check it out though Boy Snow Bird isn’t just another riff on that work. This fairy tale is far more beguiling; it slips through your fingers.

Barely out of her teens Boy Novak escapes her horribly abusive father and New York’s oppressive streets for a new life in idyllic rural Massachusetts. It’s 1953 and there aren’t many options for single young women. (None really.) She runs through a number of jobs (usher at a theatre hostess) before settling in at a bookstore run by an eccentric grump more interested in solitude than making a buck.

She meets Arturo Whitman a recently widowed mild-mannered ladies’ man who’s looking to share his local hotel business and parenting duties. His preschool-aged daughter Snow is one of the most oracular sprites you’ll meet a potentially troublesome creation that Oyeyemi successfully reins in from becoming overly encrusted in fairy dust.

It’s less a marriage born of love than mutual understanding and convenience but Boy takes to it with a mid-century modern pre-feminist zeal. The birth of her daughter Bird is a real conjuror’s trick: the child is dark-skinned. Really dark-skinned in fact. She’s a mysterious hybrid belying a hidden family history but whose? Where did Bird come from this African-American child born to a white family? Boy herself isn’t prejudiced per se having escaped and transcended an oppressive past. (Not to equate the two of course; Oyeyemi doesn’t either but Boy is a character of the severely downtrodden Charles Dickens set.) She knows from what she speaks even if it’s occasionally a bit WASP-ish and condescending. But her thoughts betray her era: she notices “coloureds” in the community as being separate and unequal and part of her can’t see them any other way.

Bird’s very existence tests the limits of understanding and acceptance in both the town and their family. Slowly Boy’s thoughts about her child’s “otherness” begin to worm their way through her brain and she finds herself the unwitting antagonist in an age-old tale about a wicked stepmother undone by her thwarted vanity. Not quite destroyed however: without spoiling the details Oyeyemi isn’t interested in bludgeoning her characters’ moral calamities as fairy tales tend to gleefully do. As she proves fairy tales are a trap something to be fought against and transcended. Oyeyemi doesn’t offer a way out; she doesn’t need to. It’s all an illusion anyway.

BOY SNOW BIRD by Helen Oyeyemi published by Hamish Hamilton (320 pp.).