The Short Version: Boy Novak escapes her brutal father in post-WWII New York and heads north, to the Massachusetts countryside. There, in a small town some way out of Boston, she begins a new life and falls in a kind of love with widower Arturo Whitman and his daughter Snow. But a surprise revelation upon the birth of Arturo & Boy’s daughter changes everything she thought she knew about the town, about her husband, and about herself…
The Review: A magic spell grabbed me with this novel, almost as soon as I opened it up. The epigraph, from an Eleanor Ross Taylor poem (“Wake, girl / Your head is becoming the pillow.”), grabs you – and the whole thing (entitled “Painting Remembered”) will end up echoing beautifully with the novel once you finish, but, for now, it’s just that excerpt… and then the opening line of “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”
I mean, damn.
I knew Oyeyemi’s work from her recent short story collection and have had her novels on my list for a long time – but it wasn’t until, after reading those stories and falling hard for her voice, I went out and picked up one of the books. (It also helped that my BookClub opted for this one as our most recent read and that this one had been long encouraged by several reader-friends as a great place to start.) I knew to expect a level of magic in her work, that many of her stories (short or full length) were rooted in folklore & fairytales, and that this one had Snow White as inspiration – but I was thrilled to see that this wasn’t like Gregory Maguire’s take on fairy tales and, instead, just using the elements of those stories to inform her own take on the world… creating, as a result, a kind of alchemical reaction and (at least in the case of this novel) a brand new piece of folklore that speaks much more specifically to a modern era than the tales of the Grimms ever could.
One of the most impressive facets of the book was the way that, while it made no overt appearance in the early going, magic always seemed to be lurking in the background. Not necessarily the sort of fairy godmother or Harry Potter magic that you might immediately expect upon the use of that word – but rather a sense of augmented reality, like the feeling you get when you look at a Kodachome photograph: everything is richer, deeper, and slightly less real than it appears in the real world. Perhaps this is partly to do with the novel’s being set in the early 1950s, and the ’50s have that glossy not-quite-real glow about them to modern audiences – and this glow carries the reader away through the first third of the book. But later, when mirrors start to take on a more sinister and deceptive role and the magic that’s been lurking begins to come to the fore, it all feels expected or anticipated – in a good way, in the sense that we’ve known it to be there and now, it has shown itself.
As to the story: Boy Novak, our main character, has fled her abusive father in New York and arrived just outside of Boston. She is beautiful and wins the heart of a widower, Arturo, and even begins to chip away at the overwhelming beauty of Snow, his daughter. It’s only upon the birth of Boy and Arturo’s child that the truth is revealed: Arturo, his mother, and his daughter, are all light-skinned African-Americans. This is a remarkable reveal, one I wish the back cover copy didn’t spoil – but, even with that, it still lands with amazing power. It turns the novel on its ear, transforming Boy in an instant along with everyone else in the story. Arturo, Snow, and Olivia are no different than they were before the reveal – and yet, they are irrevocably changed for us. The context of their lives is radically altered now and Boy, confused and somewhat vengeful, steps into the “wicked stepmother” role that had been waiting for her when she sends not her daughter Bird but Snow away to live with Arturo’s dark-skinned sister.
Olivia, matriarch of the family, may be the most evil one for having so firmly steered the family into whiteness (even at the expense of her own daughter) but Boy’s behavior is the more insidious. She slowly turns Bird against her half-sister and it’s only at the end that the spell surrounding these three titular women begins to fracture. Before we talk about that end – or as a way of moving into it, perhaps – I should say that the novel is not only a commentary on race and appearance but gender and appearance as well. During the first section of the book, as Boy has struck out on her own and comes to live in a boarding house with several other women, she has several “adventures” in young womanhood: going on dates, finding a job, encountering the old maid/spinster of the town, etc. One early scene, where she and Mia (her newfound friend) work a pleasure cruise, delights in discussing the relative values of blondes/brunettes – for in order to work on the boat, you must be blonde… but plenty of the women are wearing wigs, so what does that mean? Is it the reality or the image that we’re meant to believe as true?
Femininity is addressed here, too. For one thing, our main character is a woman named Boy – and so immediately, Oyeyemi has set us up with an imbalance, a dissonance. Snow is presented as the feminine ideal in many ways, with people falling over themselves because of her “pure beauty” – a beauty that is, by Bird’s reckoning, largely false. And then there’s the most curious moment in the book, a moment that feels altogether too rushed and that also feels like a relic of a time not too many years ago (but that shows how quickly our culture has moved) – and please note that this is a SPOILER for anyone who hasn’t read the novel:
You see, Boy’s father is in fact his mother. After a violent rape, Frances (known now as Frank) looks in the mirror and sees herself as a man – and so she takes on that personae, wraps it around her, and embodies it. The end of the novel sees Boy and her daughters heading to New York to find Frank and see if any of Frances remains inside – to meet, as it were, her mother for the first time.
And to some members of my BookClub as well as to several readers I’ve encountered online, that smacks of transphobia – the idea that Frank isn’t the “real” person. Having spent the last six months immersed in trans studies and dialoguing with members of the trans community for work, I can see how – to a 2016 eye – that might be so… but I also think that that reaction may be an unintended side-effect of our modernizing culture. Because I don’t think, at least based on my understanding of the book, that Frank/Frances is meant to be considered a trans character in the strictest sense – but, rather, a person placed under a spell. Oyeyemi does such a good job of keeping magic peripheral to this novel that, in the presence of real true serious magic, the reader isn’t quite ready and instead looks to reality for understanding when maybe they shouldn’t. How often, in fairy tales, do people get placed under spells that transform them into… another thing? another person? another gender? another state? The mirror placed a particular spell on Frances and, at the end of the novel, Boy, Snow, and Bird are off to try and break the spell.
There’s also something to the dissociative identity disorder reading of this ending, that Frances and Frank actually co-exist and that this fractured reality was brought on by her trauma – and such a reading feels, to me, like the literal explanation of the “mirror magic” interpretation. I can’t argue that it was a complex ending and that about fifteen things happen in the space of about seven pages at the very end of the novel in a way that felt wholly rushed – but that doesn’t change it from being tremendously potent and entirely in keeping with the magic that came before, even if our modern understandings make it a little thornier to consider.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The rushed ending – especially playing, as it does, with some pretty serious politics (in a way that the rest of the book also does, but at greater length and with more serious consideration) – makes this book a bit less than perfect. Too, I wanted at times to hear from Snow herself – we get Boy and Bird’s points of view, but what of the actual interpretation of the “wicked stepmother” through the eyes of the stepchild? Still, I can’t complain too much: this book is downright delightful and Oyeyemi’s magic is infectious. She’s not quite like any other writer out there today and, as a connoisseur of magic, well, I’m damn glad we have her.