"Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy." When a book begins like that—intriguing, honest, and sleekly dangerous—it's best to make a polite bow and cede the opening line of your review to it. In this case, that first line also opens a window into the dark, tangled heart of Boy, Snow, Bird. It's a story about mirrors, about the fractured half-truths they give us, and the ways we might build our lives both evading and fulfilling the prophecies of our own reflections. If there is a villain in Oyeyemi's clever, bold retelling of Snow White, it's not the stepmother; it's the mirror.
The stepmother begins as a girl named Boy, born in nineteen-thirty-something New York City. She's raised by her father, a chillingly deranged rat-catcher who claims to see something evil lurking behind his daughter's beautiful face. But Boy isn't a broken-girl-seeking-salvation character. She's a survivor, with a survivor's coldness: "I've always been pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to. Myself, or my father—whichever option proved most practical . . . That kind of bottom line is either in your character or it isn't, and like I said, it develops early." She isn't a likable woman, but I fell in love with her unafraid harshness before the end of the second page.
Boy escapes her father and takes a train to the idyllic New England village of Flax Hill. There she falls almost-in-love with Arturo, a widowed ex-historian, and meets his pale, perfect daughter, Snow. Boy and Arturo are married, and Boy gives birth to a daughter within the year. In so doing, she discovers the secret Arturo and his family have so carefully guarded: the Whitmans are light-skinned African Americans, passing as white. Boy's newborn daughter, Bird, is far too dark-skinned to pass, and the Whitmans advise Boy to ship her off to their southern kin. Instead, in a single act of mingled cruelty and defiance, Boy sends white-skinned Snow away, so that her own daughter will not be constantly compared to her and found wanting. "Snow," she vows, "is not the fairest of them all."
And then the story flips, and we see the world from Bird's thirteen-year-old eyes, and you get to fall in love with a new character all over again. Bird's voice is sweeter and sharper than her mother's, and more charmingly naive. She overhears someone telling her mother she's at a "dangerous age," and thinks "she's got to be talking about menstruation. I haven't started yet, but there’s probably some risk of bleeding to death if you're taken unawares the first time. I won't be caught unawares, though. That's not how I'm going out."
The rest of the book follows Bird and her elusive reflection, which isn't always in the mirror where it ought to be, and the reemergence of Snow herself. The sisters navigate a life increasingly complicated by the changing social landscape of the 1960s, when the ability to pass as white begins to look less like magic and more like betrayal. How a Nigerian-British 29-year-old living in Prague can so deftly navigate the cultural labyrinth of rural, interracial America in the 1960s is something of a mystery, but her incisive eye never falters.
It's not a perfect book. I've had two days to talk myself out of either writing a five word review in all capital letters (EVERYONE, PLEASE READ THIS IMMEDIATELY), or writing a long, sentimental treatise on everything I loved about it. I can begin to see the jagged edges of the plot; the crowds of characters that blur together; the shuddering, abrupt ending. But even though I see the flaws, I still don't fully believe they exist. The simplest truth is that I enjoyed every moment I spent reading Boy, Snow, Bird, without exception, and no story has slunk off the pages and grabbed hold of me like this in a very long time.
In part, it’s simply the moment-to-moment charm of Oyeyemi's writing. It's not lyrical or honeyed. It just is, as natural and erratic and unstudied a voice as you've ever heard, having evaded the deadly flattening influence of writer's workshops and The Elements of Style. Her voice reminds me more of Salinger's Buddy Glass than anyone, with the same casual, muscular honesty. There are bits of light wisdom, delivered deadpan ("The first coffee of the morning is never, ever, ready quickly enough. You die before it's ready and then your ghost pours the resurrection potion out of the moka pot"), and tiny, sharp descriptions ("She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who'd just come from the future but didn't want to brag about it"). But there are weightier pieces, too: "it's not whiteness itself that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness . . . we beat Them (and spare ourselves a lot of tedium and terror) by declining to worship."
It might also be the fundamental subversive joy of a passing narrative mixed with a fairytale retelling. It's what might happen if Catherynne Valente's and Toni Morrison's dreams collided in midair and poured out on the page. Snow White is the ideal fairy tale to explore whiteness and beauty and mirrors, but the additional exploration of black characters passing as white made it a much more complex and twisting story. Passing, from Nella Larsen onwards, has always had a special magic that simultaneously reveals the power of racial hierarchies to mold lives, and the deeper absurdity of racial classification. The very nature of passing makes it painfully clear that race is a vicious mask of our own making, a distorted reflection in a mirror, which has nothing to do with the arrangement of our DNA.
In a powerfully sudden ending, Oyeyemi carries the passing narrative outside of race and into gender. It's presented with a kind of casual fierceness, a devastating poker hand tossed onto the table without a second glance. Without revealing her cards, I can say that it was a complicated portrayal of an abused and abusive trans man, which delved dangerously into the old trans-people-are-the-products-of-trauma trope. And yet—it wasn't about people exercising their freedom of orientation and expression. It was another story about passing, and about fooling the mirror into showing you someone else.
To summarize: EVERYONE, PLEASE READ THIS IMMEDIATELY. Even if you think you'll claw your eyes out if you're exposed to another twee fairytale retelling. Even if passing narratives have never seduced you with their dizzy combination of tragedy and absurdity. Even if the book is marketed exclusively to People Who Read Modern Literature, with reviews that seem to shuffle their feet nervously and ask, "When she mentions giants or unicorns or talking spiders, she's only speaking metaphorically — right?" As readers of the fantastic, we know she isn't, and that it doesn't matter very much. We know that, no matter what the mirror tells us, Boy, Snow, Bird is full of wild and dark and strange creatures lurking just beneath the surface of our own past.
Alix E. Harrow works as a history curriculum writer and regularly posts speculative fiction reviews at Fantasy Literature and her personal blog. She lives in a romantically dilapidated farmhouse with her partner in Kentucky.