Once upon a time, there was a girl who left her home and traveled to a cold land far, far away. Sometimes she was very sad, and once she fell down a dark well, and no one knew if she would get out, but she did. She wrote a book and sold it for a pot of gold. People said, “Surely, she is one of the best young writers in the realm,” and she wrote happily ever after.
That fairy-tale version of Helen Oyeyemi’s life is hard to resist. The Nigerian-born British writer has wrestled with cultural dislocation and severe depression, but the outline of her remarkable career glimmers with pixie dust. Since writing “The Icarus Girl” — before she was 20 — she’s dazzled critics with stories laced with myth, magic and legend.
Her latest novel, “Boy, Snow, Bird,” continues on this bewitching path, winding along the edge of the forest of make-believe. “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors,” begins a 15-year-old girl named Boy. She’s the only child of a grotesquely violent father who catches rats for a living. Their lives are colored by the nightmarish hues of folk tales but rooted in the real-life details of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1940s. As opposed to the surrealism of Aimee Bender, Oyeyemi seems determined to maintain a kind of magical deniability. When she mentions giants or unicorns or talking spiders, she’s only speaking metaphorically — right? — but the atmosphere of fantasy lingers over these pages like some intoxicating incense.
Just as the story starts to vibrate between Grimm fairy tale and grim child abuse, Boy runs away to a town in Massachusetts called Flax Hill, where “people make beautiful things.” Among these artists and artisans, she finds an apartment, picks up odd jobs and eventually starts working at a thriving bookstore. (How’s that for a fantasy!) Her new friends are other young women starting careers and looking for husbands — a life just as plain and earthbound as you please. But catch that teasing scent of the fantastical wafting back in. At the town bakery, the little figures on top of the wedding cakes smile “the kind smile that suggested dark magic was afoot.” And Boy, recalling a walk home from a date, says: “One of the bigger houses had brambles growing up the front of it in snakelike vines. The smell of baking chocolate-chip cookies aside, it looked like a house you could start fanciful rumors about: ‘Well, a princess has been asleep there for hundreds of years.’ ” And then, as though invoked by Boy’s allusion, a little girl appears holding “a large cookie in each hand and more in the pockets of her dress. . . . I just said ‘Hi, Snow’ as if we’d met before, when of course we hadn’t, and I kept going, kept my gaze fixed on the road ahead of me. ‘Scared’ doesn’t even really describe it. I almost crossed myself. I felt like the evil eye had fallen upon us both.”
That pretty, motherless girl living in the forest is named Snow Whitman, which I feared might be the start of some fey restaging of “Snow White”: heigh-ho, heigh-ho to allegory we go! (“Boy, Snow, Bird” is less sentimental than Eowyn Ivey’s “The Snow Child,” a more faithful fairy-tale reimagining that was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction.) But I don’t care what the magic mirror says; Oyeyemi is the cleverest in the land. As this story develops, Boy finds herself cast as the wicked stepmother, and her relationship to Snow stirs up old misgivings about her own beauty and value. Can Boy ever recover from her father’s savage insistence that she’s secretly evil? Can she ever learn to trust a little girl who “looks like a friend to woodland creatures”? Is there something manufactured, something manipulative about Snow’s “radiant, innocent virtue”? With such questions, Oyeyemi aggravates our anxieties about maternal jealousy and the limits of parental love, subjects we’ve been trained from childhood to consider in black and white.
As civil rights protests burn across distant parts of the country, Flax Hill maintains its flinty, New England demeanor. But this novel about a white town in Massachusetts is not nearly so monochromatic as it first appears. Keep an eye out for stray references to Emmett Till, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and those smart black kids who hang out in Boy’s bookstore. Oyeyemi proves herself a daring and unnerving writer about race. This isn’t one more earnest novel to reward white liberals for their enlightenment. (Insert your favorite bookclub title here.) “Boy, Snow, Bird” wants to draw us into the dark woods of America’s racial consciousness, where fantasies of purity and contamination still lurk. Under Oyeyemi’s spell, the fairy-tale conceit makes a brilliant setting in which to explore the alchemy of racism, the weird ways in which identity can be transmuted in an instant — from beauty to beast or vice versa.
Beware what you read about this deceptive and deceptively simple story. (Granta published an excerpt last year that gives nothing away.) The plot turns on a few surprising revelations that will be easily crushed by careless summaries — like, I’m sorry to note, the one on this dust jacket. The book is pocked by the same lacunae that make ancient stories so unsettling. Admittedly, its thematic murkiness will strike some readers as frustrating. But while staying rooted in a largely modern, realistic setting, Oyeyemi captures that unresolvable strangeness in the original fairy tales that later editors — from Grimm to Disney — sanded away. As Boy says, “No revelation is immediate, not if it’s real.”
This is real.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles
BOY, SNOW, BIRD
By Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead. 308 pp. $27.95