Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

In the last few weeks I’ve read two works by Oyeyemi (Peaces and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours) and what I liked most about them was how funny, inventive, and unapologetically queer they were. So, naturally, I was somewhat surprised and saddened to discover that Boy, Snow, Bird lacks any of those qualities. I can’t honestly say that Boy, Snow, Bird has any real strengths. There are far more superior books out there examining race in the 1950s and 1960s America, such as ReginaPorter’s The Travelers, and to call this novel a Snow White retelling seems overarching. While Oyeyemi does incorporate within her narrative certain recognizable fairy tale motifs—mean stepmothers who hate their angelic stepdaughters, magical mirrors and or reflections—the story she recounts struck me as painfully prosaic. We have a vague, and unconvincing, historical setting, cardboard characters, and an uneventful storyline that drags on too long.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part one and three are narrated by Boy. She’s white and the daughter of a pest exterminator who she often refers to as ‘the rat catcher’. In a manner reminiscent of Dickens and She Who Shall Not Be Named, Oyeyemi gives her characters names, or nicknames, that convey their personality or profession. I may sound overly critical here but why do characters whose professions are often openly looked down upon—janitors, cleaners, pest exterminators, etc.—are so frequently cast in the role of sinister and/or obsessive creeps? I mean, just because someone whose job requires them to kill rats doesn’t mean they have to be ‘unstable’ and rat-obsessed (this guy makes rat noises and is apt to go off on anti-rat rants). Anyhow, this rat catcher is horrible through-and-through. He treats Boy in a rather appalling way and understandably she decides to run off once she’s done with high school. She ends up finding a job (what that was i cannot recall) and eventually becomes involved with a man named Arturo who is entirely void of a personality. This man has a daughter called Snow who is biracial, and Boy decides to exile her. Why? I can’t say for sure. It seemed that Boy found Snow’s ‘goodness’ grating or felt threatened by her.
Boy and Arturo have a child together, Bird. Part two is narrated by her and it mostly consists of a series of boring episodes. She exchanged letters with Snow, who she has never met. Whether they got on or not, I have no idea. Their responses to each other’s letters were almost jarring. There is an attempt at exploring doubleness but the story never has anything interesting on this matter.
We then return to Boy who has nothing really interesting to say.

Up to this point, it was safe to say that I did not care for this novel. The characters were dull, poorly developed. Our mains were very one-note and their voices failed to elicit any strong emotions in me. The secondary characters are barely there, and most of the male characters—regardless of their age—blurred together. We also have that one Italian character who just has to say ‘cara’ this and ‘cara’ that. Ffs. Still, I would not have discouraged others from attempting to read it as this could have easily been one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ cases but then Oyeyemi drops a rather unpleasant surprise near the end.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Turns out that the ‘rat catcher’, turns out his name is Frank, who up to now has been portrayed as this abusive possibly ‘deranged’ villain, is a trans man. Frank is Boy’s mother. Frank used to be a gay woman who was raped and became pregnant with Boy. After this traumatic experience Frank ‘became’ trans: “You know how Frank says he became Frank? He says he looked in the mirror one morning when he was still Frances, and this man she’d never seen before was just standing there, looking back. ”
Leaving aside the fact that Frank’s ‘story’ is recounted by someone who keeps misgendering and deadnaming them (this story is set in the 50s and 60s after all), I find this whole ‘reveal’ to be a poor choice indeed. Not only does the story imply that victims of sexual abuse cannot ever recover (which, unfortunately, sometimes happens to be true but here it struck me as intentionally sensational) but they will inevitably become abusers themselves. Which, yikes. Can we not? And don’t get me started on the whole ‘woman wanting to escape womanhood by becoming a man + lesbians becoming men because of trauma and the patriarchy’ terfy combo. Fuck sake. And to make your one trans character into an unhinged abuser is decidedly questionable.

To prospective readers of this book: I would like to dissuade you. Give this one a wide berth. Oyeyemi has written far better, and certainly a lot less dubious, things, so I recommend you check those out instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

“A library at night is full of sounds: The unread books can’t stand it any longer and announce their contents, some boasting, some shy, some devious.”

Confusion galore! What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a relentlessly inventive and delightfully playful collection of interlocked short stories. These intentionally bewildering fabulist stories are inhabited by off-kilter characters who find themselves in increasingly fantastical scenarios. Magical keys, doors, puppets, and houses populate their lives, and Oyeyemi treats these elements with little fanfare. While readers will find her characters’ circumstances and misadventures to be bizarre to the extreme, they seem relatively nonplussed by how weird and absurd their lives are. While I loved that these stories celebrated books and creativity, and I found the quirky dialogues and character responses to be amusing, I did have a hard time figuring out what the hell was happening. The stories begin with little ceremony, plunging straight into bizarroland. It isn’t often clear where or when we are but we are made to accept these stories offbeat premises. Rather than having straightforward plotlines, these stories seem to be composed of eccentric vignettes that aren’t going in any particular direction. The stories seem to end randomly, providing no real closure or insight into whatever these characters were going through.
leaving me feeling rather The carnivalesque elements embedded in these narratives brought to mind la commedia dell’arte (i believe pulcinella gets a mention). These stories are so profoundly perplexing that I struggled to follow whatever was happening. While I’m sure this was intentional, it did work against my being able to feel involved in whatever was going on. Still, I did appreciate Oyeyemi’s British humor. I also loved how casually queer these stories are.
If you are a fan of absurdist tales, this may be a collection worth checking out.

my rating: ★★★

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Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

“Talking to strangers can be riskier than it is rewarding; even people who know each other well talk at cross purposes and derange each other’s perceptions.”

Peaces is the type of freewheeling novel that fully embraces its own weirdness, taking its readers along a madcap sort of adventure, one that is guaranteed to be equal parts amusing and confounding. What drew me to this novel, zany premise aside, was that it would take place on a train. It just so happens that I am a sucker for works set on trains (they can be classic whodunnits—Murder on the Orient Express, The Mystery of the Blue Train—or animated series—Infinity Train—and films—The Polar Express—or anime—Baccano—or short stories—Mary Ventura and The Ninth Kingdom—or genre-defying mindfucks such as Snowpiercer). I’m not sure why I find this setting so appealing (enclosed spaces? The idea of a journey?) but chances are if a story is set on a train, I will be checking it out. Oyeyemi makes the most of her setting and I absolutely loved the slight but present Wes Anderson-esque feel of ‘The Lucky Day’, the train boarded by Otto, our narrator, his partner, Xavier, and their pet mongoose. Once inside the train, Otto & co find themselves in increasingly perplexing scenarios (a woman named Ava may possibly be in need of help), as they come across some eccentric figures who seem to know all about them and each carriage they walk through seems more peculiar than its predecessor. Otto and Xavier become inevitably embroiled in The Lucky Day’s growingly peculiar goings-on.
Otto’s narration is delightfully sardonic and so very British. His wry and frequently mystifying inner monologue is deeply diverting. The characters’ nonplussed responses towards the many fantastic and outlandish things that happen on The Lucky Day added an extra layer of surreality to the overall story and brought to mind the kind of absurdist works penned by Lewis Carroll (or even Beckett). The puzzling conversations that populate this train journey are as entertaining as they are baffling.
Peaces was a fun if discombobulating read that bears the signs of a marvellously inventive and talented storyteller. In addition to a cast of wonderfully queer & quirky characters, Oyeyemi presents her readers with a unique take on love and heartbreak, on sanity and insanity, on being seen and unseen. The novel adopts this matryoshka doll-like structure so that with each chapter we come closer to the heart of this bizarro mystery. The last few chapters did come across as rushed and even somewhat bathetic.
Still, Peaces makes for a decidedly droll ride. Oyeyemi has crafted a nonsensical if strangely modern fairy-tale, one that I look forward to revisiting (and maybe a second read will make me understand more fully what went down in that final act.). Anyhow, if you are a fan of experimental and deeply surreal narratives (think Piranesi) Peaces may be the perfect read for you.

re-read:
The latter half of this novel still has me confused. This is certainly the desired effect but it does become a bit frustrating. While I liked the absurdists elements that dominate the narrative, towards the end I found all of the characters (especially the ‘villains’) to be much too much. The side characters did not remotely come across as actual human beings but the type of one-dimensional figures befitting cartoons aimed at small children. Despite this Peaces was certainly a fun ride.

my rating: ★★★½

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