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Book review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Though the prolific Oyeyemi's prose continues to intoxicate, her modern folklore about race in 1950s New England neglects its plot.

Photograph: Laura Gallant

By Helen Oyeyemi. Riverhead, $28.

Here’s how Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird makes a myth of race: A white teenage girl called Boy escapes a terrifying upbringing in New York, with a father figure she calls only “the Rat Catcher,” to settle down in a small Massachusetts town. She marries, but is haunted by misgivings about her husband’s good, pure and much-beloved daughter, Snow. When she has her own child, Bird, the baby’s dark skin stuns Boy. As she takes to wearing a creepy snake bracelet, Boy weighs unsettling options: how best to hold her family together and keep from becoming the wicked stepmother?

In her fifth novel, the 29-year-old Oyeyemi coaxes the fantastical from the naturalistic with such a gracious lyricism and easy, matter-of-fact manner that the reader can’t help but shrug off any resistance to, say, central figures named Boy, Snow and Bird. Every gesture made in the realm of talking spiders and magic mirrors creates substantive challenges and consequences in the real world. What emerges, improbably, is a fairy tale about racial tension in 1950s America (with implications for life in the 21st century). For all its deftly blurred lines, though, what’s missing is a great story. If the author propelled her meditations with more plot, her sleeping beauties might lend even richer color to a world of black and white.