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Vol 106 / Issue 20

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books for global readers By Yvonne Zipp "Once upon a time" has become so overused in pop culture that it's almost lost its power to enchant. From the $1 billion-grossing, Oscar- winning "Frozen" to, um, somewhat less success- ful efforts – "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" spawned a sequel? Really? – fairy tales have been re- told, referenced, recycled, f r a c t u r e d , a n d r e p r o - duced until they're barely recognizable. Then along comes a fairy-tale retelling of "Snow White" like Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, that upends the whole thing. Apple, dwarfs, glass coffin – she tosses them all out and replaces them with an unsettling book that casts a magic spell of a completely different kind. N i g e r i a n - b o r n O y - eyemi's first novel, "The Icarus Girl," was published in 2005 while she was still a student at Cambridge University. Oyeyemi has delved into folk and fairy tales with each of her nov- els since, including "Mr. Fox" (2011). Boy Novak – the female protagonist of "Boy, Snow, Bird" – resembles her fairy-tale counterpart in that she's fond of her own reflection. "Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and be- lieved them to be trustworthy," says Boy, who would gaze into them, kissing her reflection or setting two mirrors opposite each other to cre- ate an endless series of reflections. Her daughter and stepdaughter have the op- posite problem: Sometimes their reflec- tions don't show up at all. All three women learn much about the ways in which mirrors can't be trusted during the course of the story, set mostly in the 1950s in a fictional Massachusetts town called Flax Hill. The novel hinges on several plot revela- tions, which I am not going to spoil. This is one book about which I would recom- mend you read as little as possible in advance. Best advice: Just go buy it. Boy comes to Flax Hill as a young woman, fleeing her abusive parent, Frank, a rat catcher in New York. After several fits and starts, she gets a job at the local bookstore. One day, walking down the road, Boy sees a house that looks as if it has stepped out of a fairy tale. "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 ru- mors about: 'Well, a princess has been asleep there for hundreds of years ...' and so on. The front door was open, and the porch light was on, and a little girl came around the side of the house, singing loudly. I couldn't see her face properly – it was obscured by clouds of dark hair with big red flowers plaited into them – but she had a large cookie in each hand and more in the pockets of her dress," Boy recounts. The "swan maiden" is Snow Whit- man, who has dark hair, red lips, and skin as white as snow. Her dead mother, an opera singer, chose her name. Boy ends up getting her wish about moving into the house with brambles. She marries Ar- turo Whitman, Snow's fa- ther, and his daughter loves the idea of a young, beauti- ful stepmother. And, until an event that makes Boy distrust Snow's startling beauty, Boy wants to be Snow's mother perhaps more than she wants to be Arturo's wife. Yet despite Boy's good intentions, after her own daughter, Bird, is born she ex- iles Snow – sending her away to live with her aunt. Oyeyemi plays with many fairy tales during the course of the novel, from mentions of Rapunzel to Christina Ros- setti's poem "Goblin Market" to African-American fables about Brer Anansi and La Belle Capuchine. Perhaps the most priceless exchange comes when Bird asks Arturo if Cinderella is a true story. "Not the fairy godmother stuff and her dress turning back to rags at midnight – I know that's true. But Cinder- ella just sweeping up all those ashes every day and never putting them into her stepmother's food or anything – is that true?" As is traditional in fairy tales, the fa- thers are hapless and the mothers are missing: Boy's father refused to tell her anything about her mother and Snow's mother died. The secrets surrounding those women, of course, hold the key to bringing home the princess. One plot point that is never adequately explained is why Arturo would ever agree to send away his beloved older girl. But then, Hansel and Gretel's dad didn't do a bang-up job of protecting them, either. Oyeyemi has created a riveting story about race and women's identities in the 20th century. By the end, readers will be longing for Boy, Snow, and Bird to live happily ever after. r Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor's fiction critic. Snow White casts a new spell a fairy tale is reworked into an irresistible story of identity, race. zina saunders books BOY, SNOW, BIRD By Helen Oyeyemi Penguin Group 320 pages fIctION 40 the christian science Monitor weekly | april 7, 2014

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