Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

Much of this novel is about finding an identity, how people perceive you and the lies you tell yourself so you don’t make it obvious that you’re aware of the absurdities. Society inflicts biases on young lives, altering their understanding of how they’re suppose to act and feel. The book opens with Boy, the daughter of a rat-catcher, who studies her reflection, lingering over her looks as they appear on the surface of a mirror. The later characters we find meet, also study themselves in front of a mirror. In Bird’s case she doesn’t see a reflection, as if subconsciously realizing that her family members and friends don’t see her for who she, but instead as something all together separate.

Bird’s family, from her father’s side have been hiding a secret that she revealed simply by being born. The secret was easily hidden before, since her grandparents were of a lighter complexion and had their names changed, moved to a new town, allowing them to pass as white. The events in the novel take place between the 1950s and 1970s. Though the Civil Right Act of 1964  improved the lives for black citizens, there was still much resistance, especially in small towns, so Bird’s family decided to pass for white.

There’s an interweaving of race, personal identity, and gender present in Oyeyemi’s novel that allows for multiple narrators. A young Boy narrates the first half of the story, as she escapes her childhood home and her abusive father, to go to Flax Hill, New York, and learn what kind of woman she wants to be. In the second half of the book, we meet a different narrator—Boy’s teenage daughter, Bird who is slowly beginning to understand how she’s viewed by society and the expectations that are placed on her, as opposed to her stepsister, Snow, who is white.

“Snow in winter, you in spring, snow in summer, you in fall,” her father Arturo, tells Bird.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

Bird aspires to be a journalist one day; she’s unafraid to get her feelings hurt in order to find a good story. She’s willing to listen even when she knows she shouldn’t, but does so for a chance to understand herself and her “enemies.” She wants to challenge traditional ideas by being herself and not letting her family or friends define her before she’s had a chance to figure out all the pieces. She sometimes looks to family for guidance, but is often devoid of the attention she deserves.

Oyeyemi goes for a loose, casual style of writing, which doesn’t appear rigid, and it let’s the reader feel more sympathetic towards the characters and the events in their life, but it also allows for an explanation of traumatic scenes in simple long sentences that don’t carry much decorative weight leaving the reader feeling icy cold. She expresses moments that would otherwise be dramatic or wretched in a levelheaded way, leaving you to decide whether it’s something truly awful or just a passing moment.

Here’s a line that describes Bird’s room where she loved spending nights, alone studying the corners of her mind. “In the evening, when the street lamp just outside Bird’s window switches on, the gray cobwebs quiver and glow around the blue moons. It’s the kind of view that Bird doesn’t mind risking a spider bite for.”

Boy’s observation of her father is casual, almost sarcastic to the level of cruelty he displays. “So that’s papa. Cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind or he’ll thump the back of you head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around the floor, stunned.”

The book sometimes leaves out events and skips to subsequent scenes, so we are left to assume many things, especially because the writing can seem vague and aloof. What was missing frequently was a certainty about the character’s motives and internal conflicts. Much is left to the reader to decide, making it easy to misunderstand a character and dismiss the weight of their storyline. Also, the change in narrator felt abrupt towards the end, when the voice of Boy returned one last time.

The novel opened with Boy examining herself in front of a mirror and closed with a moment of revelation, and the search for another family secret, hidden to Boy. These bookends signify a need for personal discovery even if it leads down a dark, nebulous path, because half the fun is finding the answer.

The Boy Detective: A walk of happiness


Rarely do you get a memoir that is filled with unending variety of structure. The Boy Detective is hardly deserving of that title alone but something akin to a detective story moving along random thoughts, witty statements, and poetic lines.

Roger Rosenblatt (Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats) reminisces on New York City neighborhoods, including his home in Gramercy Park of the 1950s. He recounts the childhood games and the mischievousness of a nine-year-old discovering a city, pretending to be a detective, uncovering new cases, strange characters and studying mysterious events. As an adult he walks through memorable blocks, revealing why this particular place causes him to stop. Perhaps this is where the kids played or where that old flower shop use to stand. Forward to modern-day when there are people quickly walking, texting, or taking selfies. What is most endearing is the memory of his family. His dad, silent and stoic on most days.

As we read on, Rosenblatt’s comes to terms with his place in the world through this long arduous walk.  His words intersect between memory and philosophical inquiry at times, often bringing up his favorite quotes from other writers or professors. In this case, the words of his astronomy professors.

“Then he walked to the other end, holding a speck of dust, which he called the earth. He stood silent for a moment before saying, as it if to himself: “either we are alone in the universe, or we are not alone. I find both propositions equally unbelievable. ” The word planet comes from the Greek word planasthai, meaning to wander.

Tanja Vetter (b. 1973, Pforzheim, Germany) - Starry Night, 2015    Paintings: Oil on Canvas
Tanja Vetter (b. 1973, Pforzheim, Germany) – Starry Night, 2015 Paintings: Oil on Canvas

Similar to a detective, a writer can be going after the “wrong guy.” Though Rosenblatt suggests, ” but if your walk is illimitable, no trail goes cold.”

Every time you embark on long walks through city streets, you’re a child once more encountering new and strange things; there’s something impermanent about how the city flows, the random faces, and the stories you tell yourself about them. Rosenblatt suggests that in our walks we participate in the imaginative construction of the self, as it’s beautifully demonstrated in the “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” by Wallace Stevens.

For a long-time New Yorker like myself, you can’t help but feel nostalgic, when you’re transported to the old Manhattan of small shops, immigrant communities, and risky characters. For anyone new to the city, The Boy Detective, is a fresh way to discover its history and demand for constant change.

Despite the lovely ruminations and a whole lot of references to detectives in literature and movies (many which I’ve noted to watch or read later), his writing often turns to rambling. Words go too fast, losing meaning along the way. Rosenblatt is truly powerful when he stops to describe and ponder the meaning of life.

That’s the thing about wandering: sometimes you get lost or meet a dead end— but it’s not so much time being wasted, as it is, a chance to improvise. If The Boy Detective is taken in that sense then all is not lost. The book is not for those wanting a structured memoir of the city. It’s a personal, often historical connection to a place through the eyes of a fictional detective. At the center is a youthful fascination for uncovering the mysteries that exist within the self and the place we call home.