70% Dark book review: Boy, Snow, Bird
As you probably already know (assuming you’ve ever spent five minutes with me IRL or have read even one of my blog posts), I am a fairy tale junkie, and that includes retellings. I asked a couple of this blog’s readers over glasses of wine and they agreed that, with the first buds of Spring appearing and the sun out, the freaky fairy tales were a little heavy for right now, but they loved the new 70% Dark posts. So, me being my usual contrarian self, I decided to find a way to a fairy tale-esque 70% Dark post hehehe… resistance is futile…
Boy, Snow, Bird
This is an older title, published in 2013, but I wanted to give it the shout-out it deserves because it seems to have slipped right past the notice of most retelling aficionados, who were too busy rereading Heartless or staging To Kill a Kingdom bookstagrams or I dunno something else. But this title by Oyeyemi is a unique, complex cherry blossom of a book, with a much more subtle and finessed take on that category. If you haven’t read it, man, you should. No matter what your ‘type’.
What’s great about it
I actually came late to the retelling game, even though I’ve always passionately loved fairy tales and am happy to binge-watch OUAT (that’s the Once Upon A Time TV series for the uninitiated – yes it’s a thing and it has Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White in pantaloons with a sword in it, k?) and seriously wanted to be a mermaid as my career as a kid even though I was afraid of sharks. So why on earth didn’t I read retellings?
Mostly because I’m old. Lemme explain: I grew up in the 90s when there weren’t no Suzanne Collins or Veronica Roth. I mean I was like 15 or something when Graceling came out and, living in a country like South Africa, didn’t really see much of any trends and new forays into what would become YA because only the very most commercial mainstream stuff got here and, back then, teens didn’t do the paying so no one much cared. That being said, I was still a voracious reader, so I grew up reading whatever was in the house that I could get my hands on: Roald Dahl, sure, but also Maeve Binchy, Ali Smith, Umberto Eco and J.G. Ballard. As a result, I tended towards much more upmarket fiction with book club-friendly themes and voice (and then J.G. Ballard like the psycho anomaly in the corner) because that’s what I knew. So when things with teenagers holding swords on their covers started appearing, like Graceling, I didn’t even look. And the slew of retellings that began with Wicked seemed to fall squarely into that category, so they got ignored too.
Wicked is actually what got me started on this journey. I breathlessly fell in love with it in university. I later picked up other Macguire books like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and loved those too. They didn’t sacrifice beautiful prose and good storytelling for the sake of plot and strict adherence to a fairy tale like I feel a lot of Marissa Meyers do.
And then Boy, Snow, Bird came along.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Cinder and stuff, but this is a different ballgame entirely. For the first time since Wicked I could get my literary, grownup upmarket fiction kicks on while still getting retelling kicks too. It’s pretty much the only retelling I could ever imagine starring at your mom’s book club. Why? Well, it’s contemporary for one, set in America in the not-too-distant past, and it deals with incredibly important topics in a new and fresh way. It takes the Snow White fairy tale and uses it as a springboard for talking race relations. I don’t want to spoiler too much, but the ‘evil stepmother’ is the protagonist and its from her point of view that we see things, and she’s as blond and pale as they come. In fact, it’s so deep, that it really mostly just covers the background of how this woman got to be herself, and only near the end do you see her engaging with Snow and there’s dark undertones. It gives you chills, because you know what’s coming, even though she and Snow don’t…
Why it’s dark
The reason I wanted to talk about Boy, Snow, Bird is because it’s a misnomer that darker stories have to include violence, gore and horror. They don’t. Our protagonist, Boy, talks in the beginning of the book about her father the rat catcher. And man it’s a creepy, chilling thing without any sexual abuse, any monsters or any blood spilled from one of the characters. It’s not horror. It’s not even thriller. It’s just dark.
This only gets more nuanced and hidden as the book progresses. The heroine is far from unflawed or even basically good, yet it’s the other characters, a lot of them – there is something off, you just can’t put your finger on it – that disquiets you. When the truth is finally revealed, it’s not corpses under the floorboards, or incest or rape or anything so obvious as that. Instead, Oyeyemi treats the more everyday toxic patterns people have, like racism and emotional manipulation, as life’s horrors. If that sounds unexciting compared to a siren’s curse or a magical evil prince, then just try it out.
Bottom line: if you like retellings but you also like ‘book club fiction’, read it.
Other bottom line: if the phrase ‘the fairest of them all’ ever offends you racially, also read it.
So that’s me for today – what are your favourite retellings, Ashlings? What reviews of dark fantasy or fiction would you like to read next? Have a great weekend and stay wonderful 😊