Mr Fox

October 10, 2011 at 9:44 pm (Review) ()

Helen Oyeyemi already earned a place as one of my favourite authors with her brilliantly dark psychological horror novel, White Is For Witching. Mr Fox is her newest book and it’s possibly even better. I got everything out of it that you’re supposed to get from a great read; I stayed up too late and put off chores to keep reading, hated for it to end, but couldn’t stop turning the pages.

Of course it helped that it is based on various versions of the Bluebeard tale, and that I have had an obsession with fairy tales since my teens, and that the enchanted/animal bridegroom is one of my favourite archetypes. Bluebeard is a special favourite with me because he, unlike the other ‘bad husbands’ of the fairy tale, does not turn into a prince nor wants to. He is much more ambiguous in his desire. Is he looking for that special ‘one’ who can pass the test he sets her so that he will finally be able to love without violence or is he a misogynistic monster, addicted to putting women in situations where they will inevitably behave like women, and then killing them in a rage over the nature they can’t help? Personally, I think he wants both, and that’s what makes him fascinating to me; wanting to kill and love at the same time. I think Oyeyemi really nailed that mixture of love and violence in Mr Fox. It is obviously a love story, but it is also an exploration of violence in relationships between men and women and of attraction to the unknown and the dangerous.

Mr Fox is a fragmentary novel. The narrative is framed by the love triangle between a writer, St John Fox, his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe, who becomes gradually more and more real and begins to demand that he change his habit of killing off his female characters, and his wife, Daphne, who has to deal with the fact that she might be losing her husband to a girl who isn’t real. Mary and St John begin a ‘game of words’ (inspired by a version of the Bluebeard tale in which his bride, called Mary, confronts him with his crimes and beats him through eloquence instead of running away) where they cast each other in different roles in various stories.

Mr Fox occasionally feels more like a short story collection than a novel, and this is one of the reasons it impressed me so much. I’m not usually very good at short stories. I always want them to go on for longer and can’t get involved with the characters because they still feel like strangers by the end of the story. I didn’t find this at all in Mr Fox, partly, of course, because the same characters keep appearing in different roles, but mostly because Oyeyemi writes so well that although I often felt momentarily frustrated when one narrative ended, I got caught up in the next story right away.

If I have to try to be a little critical I will admit that there are a few stories that feel a bit jarring and out-of-place. ‘My daughter the racist’ and ‘hide, seek’, while good stories and thematically somewhat similar to the rest, do not seem related to Mary and St John. Overall, the many different stories work well however, and there is natural structure and progression, with the final two fairy tales working very well as a conclusion. I should also add, as a disclaimer, that some of the stories in Mr Fox are very surreal. I personally love that kind of writing, and one of my favourite parts of the book included a bizarre scene where Mary chases a violin player across town for no particular reason except that she is trying to catch him, until he disappears into a strange house. Another great scene takes place at a graveyard where Reynardine, with his shock white hair and face painted like a harlequin, demands of a Yoruba woman that she write down and return the stories given to her by her ancestral spirits. Mr Fox is a weird (in a good way), clever and dark book, but it is also often funny, witty and warm. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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