By the time I was fifty pages in, I was kicking myself so hard for putting off reading this book. It was released in March and I dutifully added it to my to-read list, but when it got buried under a flood of other titles I didn't make much effort to dig it back out. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the jacket description is not your friend. It will let you down. Maybe not this time, maybe not the next, but publisher-provided blurbs are, deep down, liars at worst and truthbenders at best. After all, they're salesmen. They can't be relied upon to give a straight answer. It's best to raise the hood and kick the tires yourself.
I had read that Boy, Snow, Bird was a retelling of Snow White, and that was enough to turn me off. I assumed it would be too childish and cutesy for my taste, since I'm not really as excited by fairy tales as I was back when I used to dress up in plastic tiaras and pretend the ketchup spoon was a wand. The other, equally unappealing, possibility was that it would be too scholarly and academic, trying to elevate the simple story with cleverness and allusions that I wouldn't get. Either way, my response was a big “meh.”
So here's what the jacket copy won't tell you: Boy, Snow, Bird isn't really a fairy tale retelling. Yes, some of the elements of the Snow White story are there, what with the evil stepmother and beautiful stepdaughter and their fraught relationship. But it still reads like a novel. The characters are developed as if they are actual people, not cardboard cut-outs content to fulfill an archetype. The evil stepmother isn't evil for no reason, and the beautiful stepdaughter hides a family secret underneath her pale skin. Best of all, the story carries with it the hope of a more nuanced resolution than the stepmother meeting a tragic end while the stepdaughter lives happily ever after.
My favorite part of the novel was Oyeyemi's surprising and sensitive exploration of race and gender, in particular the ways her characters relate to and struggle with those elements of their identities. That's another thing I never expected a fairy tale retelling to do. Once again I've learned my lesson: don't trust the book jacket. Boy, Snow, Bird is brilliant. It's not just a re-tread of tired old ground.
Quite frankly, it's better than a fairy tale.