April 23, 2014

Book Review Column, By Lissa Sloan--Birds and Beasts:Two Fairy Tale Novels by Helen Oyeyemi (Boy, Snow, Bird and Mr. Fox)

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi


When striking blonde Boy Novak appears in Flax Hill, she is thinking of little else but escaping her abusive father. She cannot make beautiful things by hand like many of the Flax Hill residents, but she perseveres. Eventually she makes a place for herself and marries into the Whitman family, becoming wife to jewelry maker Arturo and stepmother to his captivating daughter Snow. When Boy and Arturo’s daughter Bird is born, the color of Bird’s skin reveals a secret Boy had never imagined about her in-laws and husband. Boy must decide how to adapt to a life she had no idea she was accepting, and how to handle her growing animosity to her beautiful fair skinned stepdaughter.

Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird is narrated in turns by Boy and Bird. The style of Boy’s narration is particularly chilling, immediately mesmerizing the reader with her dispassionate descriptions of an unhappy childhood with her father, the rat catcher. Boy, Snow, Bird is not a straightforward re-telling of "Snow White"; it is more an exploration of "Snow White’s" themes. But this is what Oyeyemi does brilliantly. Boy, Snow, Bird is a thorough examination of appearance and the value we place on it. Oyeyemi consistently returns to the subjects of color, reflections, perception, race, and gender. She also delves into the emotional violence women inflict on one another. Oyeyemi’s characters are much more layered and complex than the evil stepmother and good heroine of a typical fairy tale, which is fitting in a story with the realistic setting of New England in the 1950s and 60s. This more recent setting frees the author from the overly dramatic elements of the original fairy tale. There are no poisoned apples or red hot shoes, only multifaceted individuals, seeking answers and making choices, though the story still retains a magical feel. More secrets lie ahead for Boy and her family, and the open ending leaves many questions unanswered, but it leaves the reader with confidence that these women can and will write their own stories. 

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Writer Saint-John Fox has a problem. His elusive (and imaginary) muse, Mary Foxe, has returned after a long absence. And she’s not happy. It’s about the way he is constantly killing women. But only in his books, Mr. Fox argues. But Mary thinks there is more to it than that. There’s the way he treats his wife Daphne, for example. He hasn’t killed her, but doesn’t take her seriously and looks down on her, when he thinks of her at all. Mr. Fox must change. So Mary sets him a challenge, in which the two create (and inhabit) a series of stories for each other, periodically returning to themselves in between stories.


So begins Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox. The original Mr. Fox is an English fairy tale similar to "Bluebeard," "The Robber Bridegroom," and "Fitcher’s Bird," in which the Lady Mary visits her suitor Mr. Fox’s home when he is away, only to discover he is, quite literally, a lady-killer. As in Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi writes in a style which perfectly captures the feeling of a fairy tale, despite being written in a twentieth century setting. The in-between stories are absorbing, but confusing at times, since it is sometimes difficult to know whose story is whose, and who is playing which character. However, they all contain a satisfying fairy tale quality, and Oyeyemi never stops exploring the themes of her tale: curiosity, figurative killing, putting back together, and the power of knowledge, to name a few. Oyeyemi’s tale is optimistic, offering some hope that the characters can have a much happier ending than the fairy tale’s Mr. Fox and Lady Mary, if they can “be bold,” enough to persevere. When I reached the end, I was not only sorry it was over, but wanted to go back and re-read it to see what else I could learn. Mr. Fox is not structured like an ordinary novel, so it may not appeal to readers who prefer a linear storyline. But readers who enjoy analysis and digging into themes will find their curiosity rewarded.

Do you have a preferred genre or setting for fairy tale retellings? Do some work better than others? Join the Enchanted Conversation and share your thoughts. Happy reading!

Lissa Sloan has contributed stories, poems, and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation, but she also writes and illustrates for younger readers. Visit her online at her website,lissasloan.com, or on Twitter, @LissaSloan. 



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2 comments

  1. Fun column. I think I want to read Mr. Fox first. Thanks!

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