Saturday, April 5, 2014

Mr. Fox

Helen Oyeyemi
Completed 4/4/2014, reviewed 4/4/2014
4 stars

I had the pleasure of attending a book signing by Helen Oyeyemi at the Hawthorne location of Powell’s Books when she came through Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago.  She’s on tour for her new book, “Boy, Snow, Bird”.  She read from it, and the contrast between her light, youthful, British voice and the dark, literary prose of the first chapter was astounding.  I was enthralled by her and her book.  I bought it and “Mr. Fox”, which was the only other book by her that Powell’s carried at this small location.  I read “Mr. Fox” first, since her new book wasn’t yet in the WWEnd database.  I wasn’t disappointed.

This novel is a retelling of the Bluebeard folktale, as well as several other myths about doomed women and murderous men.  Mr. St. James Fox is an author of stories where the main female characters come to a gruesome fate.  Fox has a muse, an imaginary love interest named Mary Foxe.  Mary accuses him of being a literary serial killer and challenges him to write stories featuring the two of them.  Fox also has a wife, Daphne, who learns of Mary, realizes that she is more dangerous than your normal, everyday paramour.  And Mary seems to be becoming more and more real.  So who does Fox choose?

“Mr. Fox” is actually a collection of short stories, ranging in tone from the heinous to the redemptive, with the plot of Fox writing stories with himself and Mary tying them together.  The stories were very emotional for me.  They are drawn from the different myths, cultures, and even different times.  The main plot takes place in 1936, though at least one of the short stories is set in the present.  Each one is riveting, and after reading one, I simply had to put the book down, take a few breaths, and collect myself.  After reading several of the stories, I began to realize that not only were they connected to the main characters, but they moved the plot as well. 

This book is also about women, and how they’ve suffered from the cruelty of men and society, and sometimes, even themselves.  It’s not a male-bashing book. It’s more like an historical account of the evolution of the role of the wife, from being the victim to the whims of her husband to his healer, redeemer, and companion.  

Oyeyemi’s prose is powerful.  Each word feels very deliberate.  No words are wasted, even repeated words.  Her sentences cannot be sped through.  They must be consumed and digested.  After reading her work, I became very aware of how much I write in a passive tone.

Classifying the book is difficult.  At the reading, I asked Oyeyemi if she knew she had been a featured author on the Worlds Without End site and if she considered herself a genre fiction author.  Paraphrasing her reply, she said that she didn’t consider herself a genre writer, because she didn’t think she was genre enough to satisfy the hard-core fans, but was happy to be featured on such a site. She also didn’t think her work was literary enough, nor magical realism, and only Marquez could write true magical realism.  She even alludes to this in book.  When Daphne seems to have a very real vision of Mary, Daphne says, “I thought you were…magical or something.  Like a spirit.”  Mary replies, “No, I don’t think I am.”

I beg to differ with Oyeyemi’s self-appraisal.  While difficult to classify, I think “Mr. Fox” is literary, macabre, and magical.  It’s not a traditional narrative.  It challenges the reader to explore a different way of moving a plot.  I have so many books already on my reading list, but having read this book, I’ll be sneaking her other books into my pile very soon.  4 stars.


  1. This sound really intriguing. The Bluebeard story has a dark place in my heart and I'm always up for alternative narrative forms. Thank you!

    1. You're welcome Kate. I bet you'll enjoy this!