Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

"Mr Fox" by Helen Oyeyemi (Picador, 2011)

Mary Foxe is suspected by Daphne Fox of having an affair with her husband St John Fox. But is Mary merely a figment of St John Fox's writerly imagination? "Her name's Mary. You'd like her, I think. She's kind of direct. No-nonsense. I made her up during the war" (p.73). These 3 characters each have first-person chapters. At the end Mary suggests to Daphne that she should write. The novelist writes about women being killed. Throughout the book there are allusions to Bluebeard and Reynardine (fables I was unaware of, though I sensed the influence of Angela Carter). Within the love triangle, Mary's existence is questioned, but the existence of any woman mentioned in a relationship is precarious. That theme is only part of the fun though. There are many chapters that are self-contained stories, related only partially to the main plot. Maybe Mary wrote them. They describe further love triangles and unsymmetrical relationships, but also stories like "my daughter the racist" where the connection's harder to discern. The stories are rich in detail - there's never a dull moment - "All around them people were speaking a language Brown didn't understand; it was like silence with sharp edges in it" (p.80); "It was a long way up - the lift kept stopping, and other people entered it and left - I couldn't see them, only felt them, like clouds drifting around us", (p.119). The sustained invention is impressive. "the training at madame de silentio's" is the weakest part.

I much preferred this to previous books of hers that I've read. I'd need to read it again to come to any further conclusions. The clues are in the text for those who've read more widely than I have - "You're not Bluebeard? Or Reynardine? (p.227). The nature of storytelling and the role of muses are sub-themes. In interviews she's said

  • "I read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and instructed myself to write a linear suspense story based on Bluebeard, complete with locked doors and a brooding, irresistible wife-killer. My instructions to myself were completely ignored and I ended up going on a jaunt through a Bluebeard kaleidoscope"
  • "The tone and style switches a few times in the different stories that make up the book. In part, it's a story about the power of stories; Mary wants to broaden Mr Fox's perspective on love and his attitude towards the stories he tells, and part of that process is destabilising him and interfering with almost everything he's previously believed about the way a story goes. To that end, I had to find ways to tell each story as if it stood alone, as if it were a separate world that was unaware of the others that were connected to it."

The book's been heavily reviewed. Below are the main online reviews I found, but there are more.

Other reviews

  • Anita Sethi (Observer)
  • Aimee Bender (New York Times)
  • Boyd Tomkin (The Independent)
  • Kylee Stoor (Bookslut)
  • Joseph Sutton (Huffington Post)
  • Lucy Daniel (The Telegraph) (Mr Fox is full of luminous moments, but they are obscured by the haziness of the structure)
  • Tessa Mellas (the Short Review) (It’s a novel interspersed with short stories ... Oyeyemi picks up where Angela Carter left off in The Bloody Chamber, taking on the bloodthirsty Bluebeard figure and his alternate egos, but pushing the story further, spinning it over and over again.)
  • Liz Colville (NPR books) (Mr. Fox is named for the wife-killer in the English folk tale "Mr. Fox," a variant of the Bluebeard story)
  • Larissa Kyzer (the Second Pass)
  • Justin Jordan (Guardian) (Where Angela Carter exposed the hidden logic of fairy tale, Oyeyemi delights in turning that logic on its head)
  • Abby O'Reilly (Independent)
  • J.C. Sutcliffe (The Globe and Mail) (Mr. Fox is Oyeyemi’s first book without a child or young adult as a principal protagonist, and this is a welcome departure. ... Mr. Fox should convince a whole new audience that Oyeyemi is the real thing.)
  • Erin Suzuki (California Literary Review)
  • Andy Sawyer (Strange Horizons) (Mr Fox is not an easy book to get a handle on. Some of its sections are given titles, as stories in their own right. Others flow on from previous scenes. Some have an attributable narrative voice - St John, Mary, Daphne - others not. Some, such as "my daughter the racist," set in Middle Eastern country afflicted by Western occupation, are standalone stories in their own right, others refer to characters or themes which will be clarified later)

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Fox is a book that will not be great fun for readers who like a linear plot or story lines. The stories within the story lead the reader to places around the world and beyond, personal challenges are issued all the time, and the voices change (or do they?). Still, there is a subtle structure to the novel, a bit like a jigsaw where the pieces will fit eventually, in some expected or unexpected way. It is quite a ride, funny, heart-warming and full of surprises.
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