Category: Magic Realism

Boy, Snow, Bird

Cover image for Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemiby Helen Oyeyemi

ISBN 978-1-59463-340-9

“Mirrors see so much. They could help us if they wanted to. In those days I spoke to every mirror in the apartment. I questioned them, told them what to do, but none of them answered me.”

In 1953, twenty-year-old Boy Novak flees her abusive father in New York, landing in the small town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts. Everyone in Flax Hill is an artisan, whereas Boy has no special skills to speak of. She drifts from job to job, and man to man, but keeps coming back to Arturo Whitman, a jewellery maker with a young daughter called Snow. More in love with the idea of being Snow’s mother than with Arturo himself, Boy nevertheless agrees to marry him, becoming the stepmother of a beautiful and sweet-natured girl who is adored by her entire extended family. But when Boy gives birth to her own daughter by Arturo, baby Bird cannot live up to the Whitman’s exacting standards. Suddenly Boy no longer has it in her to love Snow, who she now sees is beloved by her grandparents largely for her particular brand of beauty. Driven apart by this family rift, Boy, her daughter, and her stepdaughter must all face the terrible power of appearances.

Slow-paced but captivating, the first part of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird is narrated by Boy herself, as she recounts the escape from her abusive father, and settling into her new life in Flax Hill. Events are largely quotidian, but there are occasional strange happenings, particularly when mirrors are involved. This magical element is largely symbolic rather than significant to the development of the plot; the obsession with surface appearances turns out to be a deep one in the Whitman family that Boy marries into. Magical events are never so concrete as to be provable, but they pervade the story nonetheless.

The second section of the story is recounted by thirteen-year-old Bird, who has been raised separately from her half-sister Snow, but retains a powerful curiosity about her. After discovering a letter addressed to her from Snow hidden in her mother’s jewellery box, Bird and Snow begin a covert correspondence eventually culminating in their first meeting since childhood. This section is shifting and slippery, as Bird slides from first person to speaking about herself in the third person, to exchanging letters with her sister.

I expected the final part of the story to rest with Snow, but the narration passes back to Boy instead as the story struggles to regain the momentum it lost in the middle. It is Boy who is tasked with recounting the awkward Thanksgiving dinner that finally breaks open the tensions that have been brewing in the Whitman family for generations. And even Boy, who thought she knew her heritage, is forced to re-examine her assumptions when her best friend, reporter Mia Cabrini, uncovers a long-buried secret about her abusive father. Unfortunately, this final reveal does not fit in well with the rest of the story, and what is intended to provide closure and reunion fractures the story irreparably instead. Oyeyemi draws equivalencies between race and gender here that simply do not stand up to scrutiny, and she handles it with none of the sensitivity and depth she brings to the rest of the story. It is no coincidence that this is also the shortest section of the book; Oyeyemi has simply not done the necessary work to integrate this unexpected twist.

Despite a number of obvious influences and references, Boy, Snow, Bird is only a very loose homage to the tale of Snow White. Boy grapples with her role as the “evil” stepmother to a child who has been taught all her life to believe in an ideal of beauty that excludes Boy’s own daughter. It is less of a retelling and more of an allusion to the question of beauty and vanity that lies at the heart of that story: who is the fairest of them all? Oyeyemi handles these topics masterfully, but falters in the end, leaving this book without the conclusion it deserves.

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Cover image for The Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby You might also be interested in The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby

The Strange Library

Cover image for The Strange Library by Haruki Murakamiby Haruki Murakami

Translated by Ted Goossen

ISBN 978-0-385-35430-1

“Our worlds are all jumbled together—your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t.”

A boy visits the library on his way home after school to return his books and pick up some new reading material. A librarian he doesn’t recognize refers him down to the basement, where his curiosity and quest for knowledge about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire land him in hot water. Entrapped in the “Reading Room” by a bald old man who plans to fatten up his brains with knowledge before eating them, the boy must find a way to lull his jailor into complacency, and escape without leaving behind the sheep man or the mute girl who are also locked in the labyrinth beneath the library.

Libraries are a recurring theme in Haruki Murakami’s fiction, but rarely are they the benign institutions we are familiar with. They tend to have a certain power, but also a certain darkness. In The Strange Library, the sheep man gives voice to what may be the source of both the power and the suspicion Murakami imbues them with: “If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would be the payoff for them?” From this cynicism, Murakami spins a dark and phantasmagoric tale of entrapment and escape. Narrated in a simple, straightforward style that counterpoints the bizarre events, The Strange Library is surreal in the manner of a dream or, in this case, a nightmare. The strangeness goes mostly unremarked within the story and indeed seems almost natural, but when you try to explain it to someone else it sounds completely nonsensical.

This book was first published in Japan in 2005, but is being released in English for the first time, with art direction and design by Chip Kidd who has fashioned it with more attention to form than function. (NB: The edition being published in the UK by Harvill Secker has a different design). Two overlapping cover flaps open up and down, while the pages inside open left to right as usual. The cover flaps need to be folded back and held behind the book while reading, making this slim, trade-sized volume surprisingly ungainly. The text is bulked out with grainy illustrations, and though the chapters are numbered, the pages are not. While the design is interesting, it makes the book somewhat awkward to read. The final paragraph of the book is easy to miss, centered alone on the final page of the book in much smaller type than the rest of the text.  A lot has gone into the visual design of the book, but the attention is more to aesthetics than utility.

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Also by Haruki Murakami:

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Landline

Cover image for Landline by Rainbow Rowell by Rainbow Rowell

ISBN 978-1-250-04937-7

“Things didn’t go bad between Georgie and Neal. Things were always bad—and always good. Their marriage was like a set of scales that was constantly balancing itself.”

Television comedy writer Georgie McCool knows her marriage is on the rocks. In fact, it feels like her relationship with Neal has been in trouble forever, and could just go on that way indefinitely. But when she and her writing partner, Seth, get the opportunity they have been waiting for to write their own show for the network of their dreams, the catch may finally bring her marriage tumbling down. Seth and Georgie only have ten days to write four scripts to present to the network executives, and staying in Los Angeles to write the episodes will mean missing Christmas in Nebraska with Neal’s family. Instead of staying in LA for Christmas as Georgie had expected, Neal packs up Alice and Naomi, and flies to Omaha without her. Calls to Neal’s cellphone go unanswered, and Georgie is afraid that she has finally wrecked her marriage for good. When the old yellow rotatory phone in her childhood bedroom somehow provides Georgie the opportunity to speak with Neal in the past, she has the chance to either try to fix her marriage before it happens, or convince Neal he never should have married her in the first place.

After two extremely successful young adult novels, Rainbow Rowell returns to her roots in adult fiction with Landline, a romantic comedy with a magical twist that may cause her contemporary fiction fans to look askance. Fortunately, Rowell openly acknowledges that her premise is a little bit ridiculous. As Georgie tries to wrap her head around what is happening, she makes a list of possibilities that includes such self-deprecating options as “5. Am already dead? Like on Lost,” and “9. It’s a Wonderful Life? (Minus angel. Minus suicide. Minus quasi-rational explanation),” before getting to “10. Magic fucking phone.” However, the unusual device allows Rowell to combine the intensity of a new romance (on Neal’s end of the timeline) and the tension of trying to save a marriage that has gone off the tracks (on Georgie’s end). The phone allows Georgie to look back on her relationship in a way that is more than just a flashback. That Neal has no idea he is speaking to Georgie in the future only makes matters more complicated, creating some humourous shenanigans. Ultimately, the magic phone does not change the fact that this is a story about how two people fit together, and make their relationship work when they have fundamental differences of opinion (Neal dislikes Seth and hates LA, but loves Georgie) that do not simply disappear over time.

Landline has all of Rowell’s usual charm and humour, witty dialogue and believably flawed relationships, with a magical device used to examine the situation from an unorthodox perspective. Fans of Rowell who don’t usually go in for the fantastic should certainly give it a chance, just as those who don’t normally go in for love stories should give her work try. Rowell follows the typical romantic comedy script, with just enough variance and deviation to really make it her own. Landline doesn’t have the deep emotional resonance of Eleanor & Park, but it touches on other truths, such as how two people who love each other and are trying hard can still have difficulty making their marriage work over the long-haul. Unfortunately, Seth wasn’t quite a rounded enough character to really counter-balance Neal. As a personification of Georgie’s career aspirations, he isn’t particularly appealing, and her choice is just a little too obvious. Nevertheless, Rowell brings it together with her signature style; she excels at open-ended conclusions that are just short of unsatisfying, but leave you unable to stop thinking about the book for days, so that the story stays with you long after the last page.

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Also by Rainbow Rowell:

AttachmentsCover image for Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

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Belzhar

Cover image for Belzhar by Meg Wolitzerby Meg Wolitzer

ISBN 978-0-525-42305-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“Words matter. That is what Mrs. Q has basically been saying from the start. Words matter. All semester, we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were all looking for our voice.”

Unable to move on after a tragic loss, Jam Gallahue is sent to The Wooden Barn, an alternative school for “highly intelligent, emotionally fragile” teens in the woods of Vermont. There she finds herself enrolled in the exclusive and mysterious “Special Topics in English,” where the elderly and eccentric Mrs. Q is teaching her final year, with a focus on the work of Sylvia Plath. Along with four other students, each with their own secrets, Jam is assigned to read The Bell Jar and Ariel, and write in a journal twice a week. But instead of becoming reading response journals, the red leather volumes transport the students to a magical land they name Belzhar. Twice a week, they are taken back to a time before the tragedy that changed their lives, a place where that tragedy will never happen. But Belzhar can also be strangely unsatisfying, confined to the realm of the past, and never able to move forward. As the semester wears on and the journals fill up, the students must figure out what they will do when the journals are full, and they can no longer deny their pain by hiding in Belzhar.

Known for her adult fiction, which often explores the disconnect between adults and their youth, Meg Wolitzer makes her YA debut with Belzhar. Wolitzer is respectful of her teen characters, and never trivializes their difficulties. However, her effort to reach out to a younger audience falls short in other ways. Clocking in under three hundred pages, Belzhar feels rushed, as if Wolitzer was anxiously checking off each point on her plot diagram with little thought to connecting those points so that they feel like they develop naturally. Rather, the plot developments are laid out unceremoniously, and the bones of the book are clearly visible, so that the novels lacks a certain subtlety that cannot be forgiven simply because it is YA. Jam’s classmates are not well-developed characters, and they often feel flat outside the confines of the chapter that imparts their particular tragic backstory. More often, they are there to serve a point. Jam and Griffin, for example, lack chemistry as a couple, but getting them together is necessary to show that Jam is finally beginning to move on, so get together they do, as Wolitzer moves inevitably towards her heavy-handed, somewhat moralizing conclusion.

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Recommended reads about teens and grief:

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Cover image for I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy NelsonI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

The Salt God’s Daughter

Cover image for The Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Rubyby Ilie Ruby

ISBN 978-1-59376-526-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the Goodreads’ First Reads program.

No, you didn’t fall in love with a home. You fell in love with the stories you told yourself about what had happened there and what you imagined could happen. Any good realtor would tell you that. Just like any good matchmaker would tell you the same about a soul mate—you didn’t fall in love with him. You fell in love with the stories of who you imagined you’d be when you were with him. The feeling of having dreamed of him long before you met him was like invisible ink written on your skin.”

Dolly and Ruth grew up in the back of a car, piloted from place to place by the whims of their eccentric and troubled mother, Diana, who read the future and planned their course by the moon and her annual farmer’s almanac. They find some stability with Dr. Brownstein, who runs a motel-turned-nursing home in Long Beach to which they return several times. Eventually this place becomes home for Ruth, and it is there that she meets Graham, who turns her world upside down all over again. A fisherman, Graham comes and goes from her life erratically, eventually leaving her pregnant and raising their daughter, Naida, alone. With a deformed foot, second sight, and an irresistible calling to the ocean, Naida isn’t like the other children in Long Beach, and she longs to know her father, to understand the missing half of her heritage, and how it makes her different from everyone else. This multi-generational family saga explores the complex relationships between mothers and daughters and sisters.

Loosely plotted but beautifully written, The Salt God’s Daughter has a languid pace that is more about the journey than the destination. The relationships between women, particularly between mothers and daughters, take centre stage, with the men hovering at the periphery of the tale. Ilie Ruby’s mysticism is subtle and deft, an unusual hybrid of Jewish heritage, Scottish myth, and pagan lore. The mysticism builds slowly, at first seeming merely symbolic but eventually becoming more literal, though this is not a story that deals in clear explanations of supernatural phenomena. I was expecting something more openly mythical, perhaps along the lines of The Golem and the Jinni, but this is entirely different sort of book, and one for which setting expectations is probably key to enjoyment. Ruby’s lyrical language often means that events or meanings are vague, open to interpretation, or requiring later clarification. It would be entirely possible to interpret the supernatural elements as allegorical, or as a coping mechanism created by the trauma in the women’s lives, although I think to do so would be reductive. However, I think this novel could have benefited from more consistent pacing, and thorough editing. There is something very beautiful about The Salt God’s Daughter, but it feels more like a diamond in the rough than a polished final product.

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Enjoy magic realism? I recommend Away by Jane Urquhart.

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