Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels, most recently White Is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award, Mr. Fox, which won a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and Boy, Snow, Bird. In 2013, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. She lives in Prague.
Excerpt from book:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Helen Oyeyemi
Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton. I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch. I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps.
Mirrors showed me that I was a girl with a white-blond pigtail hanging down over one shoulder; eyebrows and lashes the same color; still, near-black eyes; and one of those faces some people call “harsh” and others call “fine-boned.” It was not unusual for me to fix a scarf around my head and spend an afternoon pretending that I was a nun from another century; my forehead was high enough. And my complexion is unpredictable, goes from near bloodless to scalded and back again, all without my permission. There are still days when I can only work out whether or not I’m upset by looking at my face.
I did fine at school. I’m talking about the way boys reacted to me, actually, since some form of perversity caused me to spend most lessons pretending to absorb much less information than I actually did. Every now and then a teacher got suspicious about a paper I’d turned in and would keep me after school for questioning. “Has someone been . . . helping you?” I just shook my head and shuffled my chair sideways, avoiding the glare of the desk lamp the teacher invariably tried to shine into my eyes. Something about a girl like me writing an A-grade paper turns teachers into cops. I’ll take the appraisal of my male peers over that any day. Four out of five of them either ignored me or were disgustingly kind, the way nice boys are to the plainest Jane they know. But that was only four out of five. Number five tended to lose his balance for some reason and follow me around making the most extraordinary pleas and offers. As if some kind of bug had gotten into him. Female classmates got “anonymous” notes that said things like: So—I fall for you. Probably because I can see and hear. I see you (those eyes, that smile) and when you laugh . . . yeah, I fall. I’m not normally this sincere, so you might not be able to guess who I am. But here’s a clue . . . I’m on the football team. If you feel like taking a chance, wear a blue ribbon in your hair tomorrow and I’ll walk you home.
The notes I received were more . . . tormented. More of the “You’ve got me going out of my mind” variety. Not that I lost any sleep over that stuff. How could I, when I had a little business going on the side? Boys paid me to write notes to other girls on their behalf. They trusted me. They had this notion that I knew what to say. I just wrote whatever I thought that particular girl wanted to hear and collected dollar bills on delivery. The notes my friends showed me were no work of mine, but I kept my business quiet, s
“Gloriously unsettling…the greatest joy of reading Oyeyemi will always be style: jagged and capricious at moments, lush and rippled at others, always singular, like the voice-over of a fever dream.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“With her fifth novel, 29-year-old Helen Oyeyemi has fully transformed from a literary prodigy into a powerful, distinctive storyteller…[Boy, Snow, Bird is] transfixing and surprising.”
“The outline of [Oyeyemi’s] remarkable career glimmers with pixie dust... Her latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, continues on this bewitching path…the atmosphere of fantasy lingers over these pages like some intoxicating incense….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.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“By transforming ‘Snow White’ into a tale that hinges on race and cultural ideas about beauty — the danger of mirrors indeed — Oyeyemi finds a new, raw power in the classic. In her hands, the story is about secrets and lies, mothers and daughters, lost sisters and the impossibility of seeing oneself or being seen in a brutally racist world… [Oyeyemi] elegantly and inventively turns a classic fairy tale inside out.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Oyeyemi is something rare — a born novelist, who gets better every book. Boy, Snow, Bird is an enchanting retelling of Snow White that mixes questions of beauty and vanity with issues of race.”
“[Oyeyemi] is the literary heir of the late, great Angela Carter, a writer whose fiction glides from swirling archetype and folklore to the wised-up observations of a thoroughly modern womanhood.”
—Laura Miller, Salon
"This imaginative novel explores identity, race and family, arguing in brilliant language that black, white, good, evil, beauty and monstrosity are different sides of a single, awesome truth."
“Superbly inventive…examines the thorniness of race and the poisonous ways in which vanity and envy can permeate and distort perception.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“[Boy, Snow, Bird] explores powerful themes, such as self-perception, race relations, and the role appearance plays in relationships.”
“Like Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter in the ’80s, and Jeanette Winterson in the ’90s, Oyeyemi has taken a page from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and inverted it, turning the malevolence of a reflecting gaze upon itself, and making it, possibly, amazingly, a positive thing. This — more than her narrative special effects — is the extraordinary feat of Boy, Snow, Bird. In her first four books, Oyeyemi wrote with the same chilly precision as Patricia Highsmith. The performance was mesmerizing, sinister, and creepy. With this book she proves an even great ability: she can thaw a heart.”
—John Freeman, Boston Globe
“Like Hitchcock, Oyeyemi is interested not merely in what happens when you attempt to pass for someone else, but in the porous boundaries between one self and another… [Boy, Snow, Bird is] an intriguing, sinuously attractive book.”
“[A] rare contemporary novel that&