Review: Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

>>Published: September 2011

>>Finally got around to it: May 2012

What is “it”? Sometimes I think he killed her to show us something, to show us what “it” is. She was my best friend, and she knew almost everything—if she didn’t know she made outrageous guesses. She made me laugh and I made her laugh. When I spoke to my mother I was the funniest, cleverest, most interesting girl alive. Other people’s mothers told them to “be good” or to “take care.” Mine told me to be bad and wicked and not to worry. While waiting for her to phone me at school I’d feel seconds bursting inside me and leaving clouds. That won’t come again—it can’t. I’ll never have that with anyone else. I’ll never even come close.

So. When I say I’ve been visiting my mother, that means I’ve been visiting her grave. I bring her foxgloves; her maiden name was Foxe. At her funeral she was hidden away in a closed casket because she was no longer beautiful. He’d done other things before he stabbed her—no one would tell me what. I suppose I could have insisted on seeing her, if I’d really wanted to.

***

Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox tells the story of the novelist St. John Fox, his wife Daphne, and his muse-made-flesh, Mary Foxe. St. John’s predilection for killing the heroines of his novels has driven Mary to challenge St. John’s nature, to discern the reasons for his murderous literary actions. As Mary turns St. John and Daphne into narrative subjects in their own right, an unconventional love triangle develops between them and St. John is forced to examine where his true desires rest: with the woman he is married to or the ideal he has conceived.

Mr. Fox is a novel of magical realism with a required reading list. The narratives that Mary pulls St. John into borrow from classic tales and folklore such as Perrault’s Bluebeard and the Brothers Grimm’s Fitcher’s Bird. Sadly, my extensive literary education has somehow overstepped these and so many other tales employed in Oyeyemi’s work. Therefore I come at Mr. Fox from the bottom of a steep hill, having not done any of the homework. Does the novel succeed apart from its influences? I’ll be honest—I’m not entirely sure.

Without the entry-level literary knowledge that seems necessary for this title, Mr. Fox is an uneven read. The shifting perspectives, locations, and overall tone give the title an austere, highly manicured aesthetic, but sacrifice accessibility and depth of character in the process. Removing the elements of magical realism and placing the novel’s psychology at the forefront, Mary Foxe is something akin to a form of insanity shared by St. John and Daphne, revealing both desire and the impulse for self-flagellation; Mary is simultaneously an embodiment of St. John’s desires and a fulcrum for Daphne’s insecurities. Her presence is the catalyst by which St. John and Daphne are forced to re-examine their marriage, their trust, and their love for one another.

The unevenness extends to the writing as well. As previously mentioned, Oyeyemi’s language is delicate and very deliberate. However, some chapters feel more essential than others, with respect to the metaphors at play and narrative momentum. “The Training at Madame de Silentio’s” and “What Happens Next” are captivating and do a great deal to move things along, while “Hide, Seek” and the final chapter “Some Foxes” feel sadly unnecessary.

Having read Mr. Fox without first knowing the details behind its literary inspirations has, undoubtedly, coloured my opinion of this title. The concept—dissecting the needs and desires of a murderous, misogynistic writer—is exciting in and of itself, but without providing an adequate portrait of its trio of protagonists, it falls unfortunately flat. I would like to revisit this title in a few years time, after having read and digested the novel’s source material. It’s very possible that, given the proper pre-novel legwork, the finer details of Oyeyemi’s work will suddenly click. At this moment, however, Mr. Fox is a unique meta-literary exercise that never quite comes together.

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