Helen Oyeyemi’s 2014 novel has been described as a “cautionary tale” that includes “post-race ideology, racial limbo, and the politics of passing.” (New York Times) The whole story takes on a magical, fairytale quality, but ends with a shocking revelation. It is divided into three parts: the story of Boy, the story of Snow, the story of Bird.
At the beginning we meet Boy, named so because her rat catcher father refused to care enough to think of a better name. Her mother is absent from her life. She is described as having a long, white-blonde braid and is extremely intelligent. Her life in East-side Manhattan sometime in the 1930’s is horrific and violent. Early on, she runs away and ends up at a young women’s boarding house. During her stay, she double dates with another young woman there and meets Arturo. Her first meetings and dates with him begins a love/hate relationship although she falls desperately under the spell of his lovely 6 year old daughter, Snow. When she meets Arturo’s mother, Olivia Whitman, yet another kind of relationship develops.
After Arturo and Boy’s daughter, a Negro, is born, Snow, Arturo’s daughter is exiled to live with an aunt to prevent competition and conflict between the two girls. (Part Two) As the story unfolds, one layer at a time, Bird, their daughter, seems to have a second sight about “things” and has an insatiable curiosity which strives to unlock family mysteries. Over time, the two girls exchange letters. (Part Three) At the end, all family secrets are revealed sending the characters’ emotions and lives topsy turvy.
The book has a strangeness about it, from its original setting to its unsettling conclusion, and many assumptions and conclusions the reader has made along the way are turned upside down.
This is a satisfying read, not necessarily a book you will like or even one you can understand upon a first reading, but it has literary value, and I definitely will read other books by this author.