For the holidays, I was required to step down from the ivory tower in which I occupy here at the Manor and return to my family in the humdrum town of my youth I left behind years ago. As it's been a while, I don't feel so connected to the place as I used to -- and just as with any first time in a new environment, or in a strange one as if away on vacation, I experienced a sort of phenomena I think used as a coping mechanism: in order to feel more "at home," my mind familiarizes complete strangers.
Have you ever been somewhere and thought you saw a best friend, only to realize a split second later that you'd only seen some random stranger, and thought, "Well, of course that couldn't have been Elizabeth -- she's in a whole other state altogether!"
I've found that upon these trips, a novel serves to be an excellent travel companion, being a familiar voice to turn to at the end of an exhausting day of socializing with old friends. So I brought with me Helen Oyeyemi's fourth novel Mr. Fox, and oddly enough, the phenomena of familiar strangers cropping up in strange places is all part of an active reading experience with the book. I'll explain this in a bit.
First, the gist of the story: famed author St. John Fox has a habit of killing off the women in his books. Mary Foxe, his sort-of muse, sort-of imaginary friend since his lonely days serving in the war, arrives in Fox's study and reprimands him for being so insensitive towards his women: his writing, she says, is just downright mean. But it's not real, says Mr. Fox, only fiction, so where is the damage? Mary has an idea, then, and issues a challenge: she and Fox are to create a game of stories, chasing one another in and out of various narrative threads, falling deeper in love along the way -- and as the stories go on, Fox's wife begins to suspect an affair.
While the book is marketed as a novel, it's somewhere between a novel and a collection of linked short stories; many of the stories within the book have nothing to do with one another but for the theme of romance they share in common and some recurring characters, including Mary Foxe, St. John and his wife. The book is structured in a way so that a chapter may either be a fictional story of Mary or St. John's devising, or a chapter may report on the longer narrative of St. John, his wife, and Mary in the real world, which loosely links the stories together.
If it sounds confusing, it sometimes is: what's troubling is that the first third or so of the book is heavy on different stories with no over-arching narrative in between to link them together, and without reading a review (though you have that covered now, you're welcome!) or taking a quick glance at jacket copy, a reader would be lost: wait, he or she might interrogate the book, weren't we just in the 1940s? Why are we in Paris now but were in New York last chapter? It takes time to get one's bearings with any book, I feel, but with Mr. Fox one might experience a sort of whiplash at the constant changes in setting without understanding why he or she is reading different stories in the first place (or without realizing these are stories and not one cohesive narrative.)
The stories here, including the initial conflict of the plot, are permutations or versions of folklore and fairytale, most notably the story of Bluebeard, and Oyeyemi excellently juggles a wide variety of voices and narrators throughout the book, keeping the text always fresh; and stories vary greatly from sweet and sentimental to foreboding and -- perhaps I am a tad bit sensitive -- sometimes horrifying, promising a little bit of something for anyone's taste.
So, back to that mysterious phenomenon of familiarity I brought up before: throughout these stories, one asks, how does this story -- here about a Yoruba woman in Paris, there about an au pair in New York City -- enlighten, entangle or enrich the relationship between Foxe and Fox? Characters in the stories may be named Mary Foxe or St. John Fox, but they are not the "real" characters we know but rather shades of them, or alter-egos existing in unfamiliar environments, playing an elaborate game of what if?
Multiple realities permeate and are expanded upon throughout, creating a sense of disorientation -- the good kind, keeping the reader on his or her toes wondering what's "real" to the plot and what's not -- just as Mr. Fox's wife begins to come to terms with her husband's real fascination to his fictional muse. For a book begging attention of the reader for sheer variety rather than density, as well as for having characters you cannot help yourself from becoming smitten with, I give a very enthusiastic recommendation.
This piece was originally published on The Donnybrook Writing Academy.