Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi


“Pretty is as pretty does,” my grandmother must have told me thousands of times.  And one can never really believe a mirror anyway.

At least not in Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which begins:  “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years, I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  This is the voice of Boy Novak, a girl.  The first narrator.  The daughter of a brutal and sadistic rat catcher whose absent mother is never discussed, living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-something.

Boy runs away to idyllic Flax Hill, Massachusetts, a town where “people make beautiful things . . . [where they are] interested in the process, not the end product.”  Boy marries a jewelry artist named Arturo and becomes stepmother to his young daughter Snow.  But after Boy gives birth to Bird, she sends Snow away.

In Boy, Snow, Bird, it is not only the mirrors that are untrustworthy.  Things are more often than not the opposite of how they appear.  This is the first novel by Ms. Oyeyemi I have read, but according to the New York Times, she is thirty years old and a five-time novelist.  Besides the fact that I hate her a little bit for that accomplishment, I love her writing.  The following is from the section of the novel narrated by Boy’s daughter, Bird, who also has an issue with mirrors.

Sometimes mirrors can’t find me.  I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there.  Not all the time, not even most of the tie, but often enough.  Sometimes when other people are there, but nobody ever notices that my reflection’s a no-show.  Or maybe they decide not to notice because it’s too weird.  I can make it happen when I move quickly and quietly, dart into a room behind the swinging of a door so it covers me the way a fan covers a face.  Maybe I catch the mirror off guard somehow.  It starts to look for me — “look for me” isn’t quite right — I know mirrors can’t see.  But the image in the glass shifts just a little bit off center, left, then right, then back again, like its’ wondering why it isn’t reflecting all that standings in front of it.  I know a girl just came in; now where’s she at?

In its review, the New York Times says, “Oyeyemi picks myths and fairy tales because she sees the blood and guts behind the glitter and ball gowns. In essence she’s a writer of rather enchanting horror stories, but like the candy-colored blood of the dead ballerinas in Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film “Suspiria,” her violence is all the more gruesome for its misleading pulchritude.”


The author herself admits as much, saying she writes retold fairy tales.  “And fairy tales teach lessons, she says. Lessons like ‘Everything that you see is not necessarily what it is. You have to find another way to know things. You have to find another way to know things. There is inner vision. And then there’s exterior vision. There are levels of seeing.'”

In Boy, Snow, Bird, beauty is desired, deceitful and dangerous.  And perhaps that is the point of the Brothers Grimm original tale as well.

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.

Soon after that she had a little daughter, who was as white as snow, and as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony, and she was therefore called little Snow White. And when the child was born, the queen died.

After a year had passed the king took to himself another wife. She was a beautiful woman, but proud and haughty, and she could not bear that anyone else chould surpass her in beauty. She had a wonderful looking-glass, and when she stood in front of it and looked at herself in it, and said,

          • “Looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall,

dfd91135db5fde17a2f44144a2e79482                                              Who in this land is the fairest of all?”

The looking-glass answered,

    “Thou, o queen, art the fairest of all.”

Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the looking-glass spoke the truth.

I highly recommend Boy, Snow, Bird for your book club.


Just for giggles, I’ve designed a menu based on Walt Disney’s Seven Dwarves (none of whom make an appearance that I can see in Boy, Snow, Bird).

Doc:  Mix a pitcher of Gin & Tonics and pour into a beaker.  (Tonic originally contained quinine as a malarial prophylactic.)

Sneezy:  Anything with black pepper.  Steak au poivre, chicken with black pepper are the two that come immediately to mind.  Here are ten more:

Dopey:  Bugles chips (tiny little dunce caps) to dunk into bugles-original-flavor1

Grumpy:   Buffalo Chicken Wing Dip.  Spicy, yummy and just hot enough to put a little fire into your soul.

2 (10 ounce) cans chunk chicken,
2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese,
1 cup Ranch dressing
3/4 cup Tabasco
1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
Heat chicken and hot sauce in a skillet over medium heat, until heated through. Stir in cream cheese and ranch dressing. Cook, stirring until well blended and warm. Mix in half of the shredded cheese, and transfer the mixture to a slow cooker. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top, cover, and cook on Low setting until hot and bubbly.

Sleepy:  Dried cherries, almonds, dark chocolate chips mixed together.  Why?  Because they all make you sleepy!  And it’s yummy!

Bashful:  A blush wine

Happy:  Cupcakes with little happy faces.



There are several ways to go here.  You could do some moody, New Yorky jazz from the 1930s.  I would play The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love c.d. all the way through.


Arturo:  Javier Bardem

Boy:  Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones certainly has the look for it

Boy’s mother:  Tilda Swinton

Snow:  Lily Collins (maybe but she’s already played Snow White I think — so maybe some unknown who is younger).


The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

paying guests At 566 pages, you would think Sarah Waters’ sixth novel, The Paying Guests, would leave no stone unturned in this tale of the diminished circumstances of an English mother and daughter, the Wrays, who must open their suburban Champion Hill home to a young, married couple of a lower class.  Frances Wray, the isolated, sexually-frustrated, not-quite-closeted daughter, solicitously cares for her widowed mother, who is mourning the loss of her two sons in WW1.  As a result of all of the men being killed, the Wray women must somehow fend for themselves and the renting of a room seems their only option.  The first of my questions is:  if the family consisted of a mother, father, two sons and a daughter, why is it that Frances may retain her own room but Mrs. Wray must move into the former dining room in order to rent a room to the paying guests (Lilian and Leonard Barber)?  Surely there were at least two more rooms if not three?

In any event, Lilian and Leonard, the paying guests to which the title refers, move into the room across the hall from Frances, dragging in their cheap collection of tchotchkes as Frances monitors every movement and sound and smell.

There was no one save Mr. Barber, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, his jacket off, his cuffs rolled back, he was fiddling with a nasty thing he had evidently just hung on the landing wall, a combination barometer-and-clothes-brush set with a lurid orangey varnish.  But lurid touches were everywhere, she saw with dismay:  It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick.  The faded carpet in her mother’s old bedroom was lost beneath pseudo-Persian rugs.  The lovely pierglass had been draped slant-wise with a fringed Indian shawl.  A print on one of the walls appeared to be a Classical nude in the Lord Leighton manner.  The wicker birdcage twirled slowly on a ribbon from a hook that had been screwed into the ceiling; inside it was a silk-and-feather parrot on a papier-mâché perch.


     As a result of the Wrays poverty, Frances must undertake all of the drudge work, all of the cooking, all of the cleaning, because her mother (at age 55) is incapable of any of it.  Most of the really hard work Frances must do out of sight of her mother because Mrs. Wray just becomes too verklempt actually witnessing Frances work so hard, feats of physical labor documented by Waters in exquisite detail.

She worked briskly and efficiently, taking her brush and pan from the drawing-room to the top of the stairs and making her way back down, a step at a time; after that she filled a bucket with water, fetched her kneeling-mat, and began to wash the hall floor. Vinegar was all she used. Soap left streaks on the black tiles. The first, wet rub was important for loosening the dirt, but it was the second bit that really counted, passing the wrung cloth over the floor in one supple, unbroken movement… There! How pleasing each glossy tile was. The gloss would fade in about five minutes as the surface dried; but everything faded. The vital thing was to make the most of the moments of brightness. There was no point dwelling on the scuffs.

     Soon, in Waters’ overwrought, lavender prose, Frances turns toward the lollipop light of Lili and becomes obsessed by and ultimately in love with her.  In the words of Julia Keller, NPR’s reviewer of The Paying Guests, Frances and Lilian “begin a red-hot affair.”

Waters is a master of the slow build, of the gradual assemblage of tiny random moments that result in a life-altering love. She captures the deep emotion that can underlie the crude mechanics of sex, the poetry that keeps it from being just a midnight merging of limbs and orifices. Forget about Fifty Shades of Grey; this novel is one of the most sensual you will ever read, and all without sacrificing either good taste or a “G” rating.

   The reviews of this book glow.  I was so excited to read it, I bought the hardbound copy.  Michael Dirda in reviewing for the Washington Post says “that the reader is in for a seriously heart-pounding roller-coaster ride.”

     Unfortunately, I did not agree.  It seemed to me there was quite a bit of walking back and forth between rooms and a whole lot of waiting for something worth talking about to happen.  I wasn’t enthralled by Frances’ dissatisfaction and inertia, her mother’s utter helplessness, Lili’s manipulative tackiness, or Leonard’s boorish charm.  I had no one to care about, no one to root for and lots of pages of detail to wade through before reaching the completely unbelievable conclusion.  But be advised, I am a minority of one from what I can find.


     Should my book club choose The Paying Guests, I would forego all food mentioned in the book.  Cauliflower cheese, well-beaten skirt steak, etc. and try for something a bit more “clever.”  Paninis perhaps, a pressed food to represent the repressed nature of Frances.  Pasta with lots of olive oil as an homage to Leonard’s greasiness.  A hard boiled egg for Mrs. Wray.  Something pink and sticky, like taffy, for Lili.



    Despite the setting of the 1920s, there’s no mention of jazz, or the fun clubs like the Savile where the Downton Abbey girls seem to go.

    When Frances and Lili go roller skating there is mention of some music, “mild old things from thirty or forty years before.”

Funiculi Funicula

The Merry Widow Waltz  (wonder what it sounds like?


     Given the time period of the book and my status as such a fan of Downton Abbey, it’s definitely hard to steer away from that show’s cast for a suggested movie cast of The Paying Guests.

Leonard — Allen Leach (Tom Bransom)

Frances — Daisy Lewis (Miss Bunting)

Lilian — Lily James (Lady Rose MacClare)

Mrs. Wray — Elizabeth McGovern

    In the interest of fun, I’ll also try a non-Downton cast.

Frances — Romola Garai

Lilian — Imogen Poots

Mrs. Wray — Emma Thompson — because I LOVE HER

Leonard — Henry Cavill

     Happy Reading!