Fairy tales deal in ones, twos and threes, in lone heroines, haunting doubles, sets of wishes and curses: they are patternings, engines for producing extreme and ambiguous effects from simple elements. The title of Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel comes from the storybookish names of its three principal women, Boy, Snow and Bird – ‘a wicked stepmother and her daughters’, as Oyeyemi described them to an interviewer. Boy, Snow, Bird is Oyeyemi’s fifth novel. Each book has been an experiment: The Icarus Girl (2005), written while she was doing her A-levels, is about an eight-year-old prone to screaming tantrums and hiding in cupboards, whose seemingly imaginary Nigerian friend begins to take over in sinister, bullying fashion; The Opposite House (2007) makes bigger leaps in time, place and tone, cutting between a troubled young pregnant woman in London and a mythical ‘somewherehouse’ in Cuba, where her family once lived; White Is for Witching (2009) is a polyphonic haunted-house tale in which the house itself speaks and plots along with its inhabitants; Mr Fox (2011) is a fractured, ambitious novel in which the characters (a Bluebeard figure and his female antagonist) continually rewrite one another.
The latest book is another unpredictable mingling of realism and magic. The story nominally begins on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the middle of the 20th century, but its opening has many of the hallmarks of a once-upon-a-time. ‘Nobody ever warned me about mirrors,’ Boy says, and then describes her relationship with her own reflection: ‘I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps.’ Not content with one double, Boy tells us, she used to stand between two mirrors to create an infinite series of Boys that moved when she did: the effect was ‘like the working of an automaton’. ‘I’d hide myself away inside them,’ she says of the mirrors, but they are also a neat way to show the reader Boy from the outside. The motherless teenage girl she sees in the mirror resembles a fairytale princess: pale skin, fine bones, dark eyes and a great quantity of ice-blonde hair. She’s half Rapunzel, half Cinderella, but will become the novel’s wicked stepmother. Oyeyemi is playing with a fairytale template, and yet there isn’t all that much scope there for alteration. In the original tale, the bad queen is the fairest of them all until Snow White grows up. Plenty of villains start out as princesses: it’s only a question of where you begin or end the story.
In one of her first memories Boy is washing her hair when a ‘clean hand descends out of nowhere’ and holds her facedown in the water; she recalls fainting, then waking on the floor with burning lungs. The culprit is her father, ‘the rat catcher’, a nightmarish figure who keeps rodents in cages in the basement, starving and blinding them so they can be relied on to attack other rats in the factories and warehouses that want his services. (Oyeyemi apparently got this idea from Marina Abramović’s account of such practices in Eastern Europe.) Boy feels he’s torturing her for some purpose too, ‘trying to train me’, but she never finds out what for, because at 20 she runs away, taking the first bus she can get from Port Authority, and ends up in a town called Flax Hill, in Massachusetts.
All this happens in the novel’s first few pages, but the rat catcher haunts the book, reappearing in flashes in Boy’s thoughts and dreams (‘the rat catcher held me by the tail … and answered questions on my habits’), and occasionally in her own violent impulses. Boy remembers his punches, but also the more fairytale-like punishments he dreamed up: once he held a hungry rat to her face to try and relieve her of her beauty. When her feet swell half a size she figures that he will no longer be able to ride into town and reclaim her, Cinderella-style (‘If the shoes fit, she’s mine,’ Boy imagines him saying. Far better, in Oyeyemi’s scheme, to be the ugly sister: being wanted, or even looked at, is likely to do you more harm than good). Flax Hill, like the rat catcher, seems real and unreal by turns, half ordinary American town, half picturesque land of bearded woodcutters. ‘People make beautiful things here’, she’s told, fine woodwork, tapestries, brocade gloves. She finds a room in a women’s boarding house, where the others are at first suspicious of her looks and name: what was she in the city, they wonder, an actress, a dressmaker’s model, a gangster’s moll? But she settles in, finds work in a bookshop and starts going on double dates.
The man she goes out with most is Arturo Whitman, who, though once a history professor, is a bit of a woodcutter type himself – big and gruff, he went away somewhere after his young wife died and learned metalwork. Now he lives with his six-year-old daughter and makes jewellery. The little girl is the archly named Snow Whitman, a pale, preternaturally gorgeous creature like a ‘medieval swan maiden’, who seems almost to be in Technicolor, with ‘every shade at its utmost’. She remains something of a cipher in the book, a figure for other people to stare at, as they often do at Boy herself. When Boy first sees Snow, she feels inexplicably terrified, as if ‘the evil eye had fallen upon us both’: she seems to recognise in the little girl a disturbing reflection of herself, a creature so physically striking that people will always want to worship or use or punish her.
After some clumsy screwball antics – Arturo is the kind of man who, when he comes up behind you in the street, ‘makes you feel like an antelope in a bad situation’ – Boy falls in love with Snow’s father. In place of an engagement ring, he makes Boy a bracelet, ‘a white-gold snake that curled its tail around my wrist and pressed its tongue against the veins in the crook of my elbow’. It’s an ambiguous gift. ‘Could that scream “wicked stepmother” any louder?’ her friend says, but then tries to reassure her: ‘It only looks like that. That’s not how it really is.’
The book’s concern with appearances becomes still more explicit when Boy gives birth to a daughter, Bird, whose colouring makes it clear that Arturo, Snow and the rest of their relatives have only been passing as white. His late wife’s family, Arturo explains to Boy, had had the same secret: ‘you should have seen how long their faces were at the wedding,’ he says of the in-laws and his own relatives, but then ‘Snow turned out to be … Snow, and we got to go on not saying.’ The Whitman matriarchs, needless to say, cannot conceal their horror at this new baby with her telltale skin. As Bird grows older, her mother is keenly aware of other people’s reactions. Bird’s Alice in Wonderland fancy dress costume is mistaken for a housekeeper’s outfit: ‘But Alice … ’ people begin when they’re corrected, before uncomfortably trailing off.
Oyeyemi carefully sidesteps the misogyny woven into so many fairy tales: Boy’s increasingly violent resentment of Snow has nothing to do with sexual rivalry or her own fear of ageing. It’s a reaction to the ugliness of the social world they live in. Boy can’t help blaming Snow for the countless unearned privileges she enjoys as the fairest of them all. The more the matriarchs fawn on Snow, the less Boy can stand to look at her. Her beauty, Boy thinks, is ‘all the more precious’ to them ‘because it’s a trick’, all ‘smoke and mirrors’; they love to see the admiring looks Snow gets from everyone around her. ‘The Whitmans need someone to love,’ she says, and ‘have found too much to hate in each other, and so this lifelike little projection walks around and around a reel, untouchable.’
There’s a rich tradition of rewriting stories from inside the villain’s head, but here the potential baddies are so introspective that nothing very out of the ordinary ever happens. The hints of magic and stock characters – Arturo the gruff, lovable husband, Bird the bright, spirited young girl – make the story seem less plausible, while the chirpy dialogue and everyday events often dilute the fairytale effect. Near the very end of the book, a late twist involving the rat catcher seems intended to make you reassess much of what has gone before – but it’s not quite as twisty as it might be.
Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria, and her protagonists have often felt caught between Nigeria or Cuba or Haiti on the one hand, and the UK or US on the other, but when an interviewer suggested to her earlier this year that all her books were about migration and belonging, she insisted that those themes were secondary: what she cares about is ‘character and voice’, ways of reimagining old stories of doppelgangers or haunted houses. ‘But people get a bit excited if there’s a black person,’ she says, ‘and say “Oh this is about that thing.”’ It’s true that questions of race, in Boy, Snow, Bird, are used to illuminate the tensions within families, and especially between women, rather than the other way around. Thinking of Sidonie, one of the black teenagers who regularly skive off school to read in the bookshop where Boy works, Boy considers the particular ‘way that only a coloured girl can make a white woman paranoid. That unreadable look they give us … that says “I don’t particularly like being outside, but I don’t want to come in, either.”’ There are a few details scattered here and there: Arturo’s mother briefly describes how she began to use White Only bathrooms in the South, and eventually moved north only to find ‘it’s the same thing over here. Same thing, only no signs.’ Yet there’s not much in the way of historical specificity; the politics are in the background.
Race often seems only to be the most convenient vehicle for what Oyeyemi wants to explore about the way people see and construct one another, the way seeing is linked to control. Repeatedly told she’s evil and ugly by her father, Boy still stares at herself compulsively in mirrors, and once sees a vision of herself with blood on her hands, as if she’s been out taking her revenge on the rat catcher. On the other hand, 13-year-old Bird, who narrates the second of the novel’s three parts in breezy tones, discovers a magical inability to see her own reflection. It seems a blessing, a kind of freedom. Mirrors lock you in place, and to be looked at too much by yourself or others is a trap for princesses as much as for witches. That’s why, Oyeyemi implies, the one can so easily turn into the other.