When Helen Oyeyemi was supposed to be studying for her A-levels she was actually busy writing her first novel, published in 2005. I was the reviews editor for Waterstone’s Books Quarterly at the time and a quick skim of The Icarus Girl was enough for me to make it a lead review. I commissioned Lesley Glaister to write it, herself no slouch at scaring the pants of people with her fiction. She ended her review with ‘I was actually trembling when I put it down and had to keep the light on all night. I think it’s the most haunting and disturbing novel I’ve ever read.’ which I thought a little over the top but she was a regular reviewer who wrote well so I trusted her opinion. Shortly after I read it in its entirety and have never been so frightened by a book. Here was a young woman – 17- or 18-years-old – who had managed to terrify two grown women, both seasoned readers. It’s a good story but I’ve told it to give you an idea from the start just what an extraordinarily accomplished writer Oyeyemi is. And despite the distraction from her A-Level studies she went on to study at Cambridge, Social and Political Science as I remember.
Boy Snow Bird is a novel about race and identity – the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others about ourselves. Boy is the platinum blonde daughter of Frank Novak, a rat catcher whose sadistic violence seems to have sown a seed of something similar in her. Pushed too far, Boy runs away catching a bus to the end of the line which happens to be Flax Hall where everyone seems to be engaged in making something beautiful, the antithesis of her grubby New York neighbourhood. Boy views it all with sardonic cynicism, finally settling for marriage with Arturo Whitman, widower and father of Snow, a sweet eight-year-old whose mother died when she was a few days old. Boy becomes pregnant but when she gives birth, her daughter is something of a surprise: Bird is black and with her birth the carefully maintained edifice of her well-to-do-grandparents’ identities comes tumbling down. This is the 1960s – the civil rights movement is just getting going and mixed marriages are still illegal in many states. ‘Black is beautiful’ is just over the horizon but hair damaged by too much straightener is the consequence of what passes for beautiful now.
Where to start with this complex, dazzling book? There are elements of fairy tale – a wicked stepmother, a Prince Charming or two, a girl called Snow – although no apples as I recall. It’s stuffed with stories: Mia wants to tell everyone’s story, Bird tells Snow a story to illustrate what happens if you pretend to be something you aren’t, Kazim creates comic-strip stories – the Whitmans having been telling a story for most of their lives. From its very beginning, a richly symbolic mirror motif runs through the novel reflecting, or not reflecting, different images the characters have of themselves. The writing is striking: Boy watches ‘a crowd of fur coats with people in them tottering across the sand’; the ends of Mrs Fletcher’s self-butchered hair ‘looked like a bar graph’; Boy is horrified at the thought of never telling a lie ‘like living in a house with every door and window wide open all day long’. The narrative is split between Boy and Bird, their voices clear and distinct – Boy’s sharply sardonic, her thirteen-year-old daughter’s full of open curiosity and determination. It’s a triumph, and there’s a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.