Expect surreal experiences in Helen Oyeyemi’s confusing, enthralling books

My summer has largely been spent reading. I’m not sure of the exact count, but I would guess that I’ve plowed through dozens since I started checking out library books on my iPad at the beginning of May or so (and let’s be frank, that’s basically summer). Having the library-imposed deadline on my reading encourages me to bulldoze through the chapters, sometimes reading multiple books a day if the deadline is very close.

Another benefit to reading library books on my iPad is that sometimes I pick up books more due to my insatiable need to be reading something than due to any knowledge I have of the book or whether I’ll like it. And so far, this tendency has led me well.

Readers, meet my new favorite author: Helen Oyeyemi.

I had never heard of Oyeyemi until I checked out “Boy, Snow, Bird” on a whim (it was on a list of NPR’s best books of the year, so it wasn’t an entirely random choice), thinking it might be yet another modern retelling of the tale of Snow White. (I do adore my modern fairy tales.) And it sort of was.

Kind of.

“Boy, Snow, Bird” is the story of a girl named Boy who flees an abusive father to settle in an idyllic town in upstate New York. It is sort of a love triangle story – she leaves her close friend and potential lover Charlie Vacik in favor of a widower (Arturo) and his daughter (Snow) in her new town.

But that’s not really the main focus of the novel. In fact, it’s hard to say what the main focus is without giving away important plot twists.

The novel could almost be historical fiction, except for some strange business with mirrors – they don’t seem to work quite right around Boy or her daughters (the aforementioned Snow, as well as her daughter with Arturo, Bird). There’s no real explanation for this mirror problem, either.

If “Boy, Snow, Bird” is a retelling of “Snow White,” then Boy is certainly the evil stepmother. Most of the book is told from her point of view, though, so it’s hard to see the evil, except in her curious affinity for mirrors. Snow would then be the titular Snow White, but instead of being the heroine, she’s an eerie, terrifyingly lovely child, and there’s almost certainly something hauntingly wrong with her as well.

I’m not sure how Bird fits into the original tale, except that sometimes she doesn’t appear in mirrors.

The book takes place in the 1950s, complete with some interesting race relations, though explaining that statement completely would involve some spoilers.

After reading “Boy, Snow, Bird,” I had to get more Oyeyemi, so I checked out “Mr. Fox” and “The Icarus Girl,” two of her earlier novels. In fact, Oyeyemi wrote “The Icarus Girl,” her first novel, while still in school studying for her A levels, at age 18 or so.

“The Icarus Girl” features a young girl, half British and half Nigerian, like Oyeyemi herself. The girl, Jess, is what we would now call neurodivergent – that is, she has some mental and developmental differences. She is very attuned to sensory details, and often has screaming fits when things get too much to handle. Not surprisingly, she is relentlessly bullied by her peers in school, as so many are, for being different in a weird way.

When she visits Nigeria with her parents, she finds a friend – only the friend, Titiola (Jess calls her TillyTilly, unable to pronounce the Nigerian name quite right), tells Jess that she can’t tell anyone about her new acquaintance.

At first, Jess is thrilled to have found a playmate, especially one who can “get” the people who are mean to her and protect her from bullies. But soon, as could be expected, the situation gets out of hand.

I love Oyeyemi most for her prose – it seems to weave its way around ideas, so that the reader isn’t quite sure what’s “real” and what’s haunted or imagined. This is true of all of her books that I’ve read, so far – in “Mr. Fox,” I alternated between thinking that the character Mary Foxe was real or made-up for most of the book. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter: the character has the same impact on reality whether she’s imaginary or not. It’s hard to explain.

But that’s what’s great about Oyeyemi’s books – reading them is  more of an experience than a visit to any sort of notion of reality, objective or otherwise. Are TillyTilly or Mary Foxe or Boy’s experiences with mirrors “real”? Who knows! The whole thing is rather surreal and somewhat hallucinatory.

So if you need a firm grip on what’s going on in a story, or hate being confused, I wouldn’t recommend Oyeyemi’s books. But if you enjoy surrealism, magical realism, or any time when “reality” is not quite what it seems, these are brilliant books that you should definitely check out.

—By Amelia Fineberg

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