on December 12, 2011
Generally speaking, most fiction worth pursuing is on my radar, but somehow both Helen Oyeyemi and her latest novel, Mr. Fox, passed me by completely until they showed up on Audible.com's Best Audiobooks of the Year list. (And rightly so, reader Carol Boyd gives a standout performance.)
Mr. Fox is different. It is the story of the love triangle between a writer and his unruly muse (Always an excellent starting point!) and his flesh and blood wife. But don't for a minute think things are as straightforward as all that. The love triangle and the muse's struggle for independence are merely the base of a novel comprised of constantly shifting stories, each of which feature an iteration of writer St. John Fox and his imagined perfect woman Mary Foxe. In one, he's a psychologist and she a model. In another, they are children in an African village. In one he's an actual fox and she an old woman. The imagery of all things foxy is pervasive, from foxes both human and animal to foxglove flowers and foxholes.
Here is an illustrative conversation between writer and muse:
"'Mary, I think I know what we're trying to do with this game of ours.'
`We've been trying to fall in love.'
She raised her eyebrows. `With each other?' she asked coolly.
`Would you let me finish?'
`We've been trying to fall in love, yes with each other, but we've been trying to take some of the danger out of it so no one ends up maimed or dead. We're trying for something normal and nice.'
Mary folded her arms. `That is not what we're trying to do.'
`Oh, what then?'
`Your wife loves you. Turn to her properly. Stop fobbing her off and being a counterfeit companion. It would be good, if after all this, just once you wrote something where people come together instead of falling apart. Just show me you can do it and I'll leave you alone.'
`But I don't want you to leave me alone.'"
As you can see, the dialogue is witty as hell, and aside from the brilliant dialogue, the book is a joy to read from start to finish. Oyeyemi's prose is lovely.
As much as I read, there is an element of free association when I consider books. This novel has an unusual structure, but it's nothing I haven't seen before. I found myself thinking of Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. The two novels are completely different, but each features a base story fleshed out by many changing tales that, just as you get into them, end suddenly. Actually, Oyeyemi's version isn't quite that cruel. There is a completeness or arc to each of the stories contained within Mr. Fox, but still be prepared for a novel comprised of different stories connected only by themes, and what the tales themselves reflect upon the internal lives of the three individuals at the center of the novel. What an amazing way to illuminate her characters!
What Oyeyemi has done is impressively complex and sophisticated without being in any way onerous for the reader. In fact, there is a lightness of tone, and a slight air of whimsy to the proceedings despite frequently heavy subject matter. Mr. Fox is full of fable, fairytale, and elements of magical realism. There is a delightfully comic and romantic core to this tale, and yet, in addition to romance, these stories feature recurring themes of violence against women, death, and the pain of love.
Oyeyemi is a delightful discovery! With three prior novels and surely a long career ahead of her, I look forward avidly to exploring her work further.
In her latest novel, the acclaimed bestselling author, Helen Oyeyemi, takes us on a magical and utmost bizarre journey into the depths of one's imagination. Mr.Fox is a fascinating and inventive blend of stories, skillfully layered together to create a truly phenomenal work of fiction. Bursting with flavors, charming and thrilling at the same time, beautifully written - it's a novel one can't afford to miss out on. You haven't read literature, if you haven't read Helen Oyeyemi's books.
I wasn't sure how to approach writing this review. After finishing Mr.Fox I sat a long time in silence, slightly light-headed and with no clue what to think about it. I still don't know to be honest. I feel like I need to read it again to fully grasp the message that's undoubtedly hidden between the lines. In fact, I think I'd need to re-read it not once, but a couple of times more. There are just so many details, so many nuances that are all to easy to miss, and I feel that I ought to collect them all to get the whole picture. There's so much going on on the pages of Mr.Fox, so many different stories are being told here, so many shifts - in narration, time, even reality! This is a novel that requires 100% of your focus and sponge-like brain to absorb all that.
I won't even try to summarize this novel. There's no way I could do that without giving away too much. And in case of this novel, anything I'd tell you about the plot or characters would be way too much. The complexity of this novel totally overwhelmed me at first, I felt lost and confused. Every time I thought I knew what was going on, there was another shift in the narration, or the characters were all of a sudden someone totally different then before (and I don't mean that their mood changed or they behaved weird, they really turned into different people). Having read the whole book, I understand what was going on now. All the missing pieces are now collected and in the right places. The fog has lifted and there's a clear view ahead. But at the same time, I don't feel that my journey is over, quite the opposite - I want to go back and explore all the places I've previously missed. Now that I know, I desire to know more, to re-read this book and apply my knowledge in all the places that previously confused me. And that, my dear book lovers, makes this book even more wonderful to me. I love books that keep you coming back to them. There aren't many books like that out there and that makes Mr.Fox even more precious.
One thing I definitely need to talk about is Helen Oyeyemi's writing style. If you had the pleasure of reading any of her previous books, you know that we're talking some serious awesomeness here. She's not talented. She's the definition of what talent is. Talent learned its meaning from Helen Oyeyemi. The way this woman takes an insanely difficult subject or idea and then builds a whole fictional world around it, connecting all the dots and leaving no loose ends - it's beyond phenomenal. Every word, every gesture, smile, movement, description - everything is assigned a role to play, a meaning. There's no coincidence in Oyeyemi's writing. I'm tempted to say that she painted a picture with her evocative language, but that wouldn't be 100% correct. It's not a single picture, it's more like a brilliant collage, a picture made of a thousand smaller pictures. Each and every single one of the small pictures tells a powerful and unique story.
This book touched my soul, squeezed my heart, took me on a very emotional ride. I was amused, thrilled and heartbroken, all thanks to one 324-page novel. I'm glad I picked it up, it was absolutely worth it.
Mr. Fox is about the most enchanting and captivating book I have read in quite some time. Helen Oyeyemi is a highly inventive and multi-faceted storyteller. Her characters are both anchored in reality and in the worlds of fantasy and fairy tales. They can be serious or funny and ironic, they can fall in love beyond bounds or hate with a passion, they can be docile and subdued or vicious and violent. Underneath it all are serious issues being addressed despite the playful manner in which the novel is written. The stories within this story jump with ease from one level of reality to another and back at the blink of an eye. If there is anything like a plot, it is secondary to the characters and stories they live and/or imagine for themselves and for each other. What is it about? Well, that is difficult to explain without revealing too much. The enjoyment is in the exploring of it bit by bit...
Just a few hints: Remember the story of Bluebeard? The noble man who had a track record of killing his young wives because they were too curious? Until, that is, when he came across one that was the right match for him: she fought back. There is also an ancient, similar story of a Mister Fox... and foxes are important to Oyeyemi's story. With Mr. Fox she has created a modern version of the old fairy tale, adding modern life's complexities through any number of original twists and turns. Her Mr. St. John Fox is a well-known writer who creates stories where, unfortunately, the heroine... well, you get the sense of it. Until a female challenger turns up and everything is up for grabs. To add another layer to the stories, there are three in this union...
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. [Friederike Knabe]
Just when I begin to think there’s little new under the sun, along comes Helen Oyeyemi and shatters all my perceptions about how a story can be narrated. This young, brave, gifted Nigerian-born British writer is a modern day Scheherazade, weaving her tales in the form of a most unconventional love triangle: St. John Fox, a “serial killer” writer (the women in his books always die), a muse (or is she?) named Mary Foxe, and his wife Daphne.
The book is loosely based on the legend of Bluebeard – a feared and shunned nobleman who murdered multiple wives after they enter his forbidden room. His last wife-to-be is able to escape her fate.
In Helen Oyeyemi’s book, the misogynous Mr. Fox is confronted by Mary Foxe and delivered a challenge: to join in on her game to engage in competition, to avoid pat endings and to create a story that breaks the mold that he’s become all too comfortable with.
The stories are at first slightly self-conscious and increasingly become richer and richer as the characters (Mr. Fox, Mary Foxe and Daphne) begin to connect in surprising ways, across time periods and genres.
In fact, this book is hard to pigeonhole. Certainly, it is imaginative. It is also timeless: the tales amply leverage the romance and violence that are part and parcel of the best of our historic fairy tales. Mr. Fox, for example, bridges the gap with legendary foxes such as the seductive Reynardine and in one unforgettable story, becomes a fox of folklore, trying to escape his fox-like nature.
The stories themselves are marvelous: a young woman with violence in her past who meets a widower who challenges her ability to trust, a highly unusual prep school for perfect husbands…each tale is a joy onto itself. The themes within the stories have a lot to say about the creative process, the challenges of mature loving, the echoes of post traumatic stress disorder, the discovery and acceptance of one’s true nature, the agony and ecstasy of taking creative and personal chances.
As Helen Oyeyemi leads us from absorbent fantasy to hints of the truth of Mr. Fox’s struggling marriage and need for creative release, reality and fantasy often flirt with each other and sometimes even collide. Brava, Ms. Oyeyemi, for such an inventive and alluring book!
on December 7, 2011
I had a really hard time finishing this book. Until about page 250, I would not have known what was going on if not for the helpful description of the plot on the flyleaf. The individual short stories are interesting, but nothing really brings them together into a coherent novel. And the random story My Daughter the Racist has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the book.
I think it's interesting that the flyleaf description talks about Mary Foxe, St. John Fox's imaginary friend and muse, trying to change his propensity to kill off the women in his novels. I never really got that from the stories, which seemed more like the product of kids swapping campfire tales. And honestly, the only character who manages to grow or change in any way appears to be St. John Fox's long-suffering wife, Daphne. I don't think the main character grew or changed in any significant way.
I'm also a little confused as to how this is a love story. Mary Foxe is a figment of St. John Fox's imagination, so does that mean he's falling in love with himself? His idealized, although non-existant, woman? And if Mary truly is Mr. Fox's imaginary friend, why can other people see her? I'm fine with suspending disbelief, but at least make your fantastical elements logical. However, I can definitely see the comparison to fairy tales. Not the fairy tales that come to mind for most people, though. I'm talking about the obscure, strange, and confusing fairy tales from Grimm's collection whose message or moral seems to have been lost in translation. You'll definitely need to bone up on stories like Fitcher's Bird, Bluebeard, and the Egyptian myth of Nut and Geb to understand the many arcane references.
I've never read any of Helen Oyeyemi's other works, so I can't comment on how this book may be similar or different, but it definitely makes me extremely hesitant to pick up any of her other novels. I'm not sure why this book was so highly lauded either. I admit the writing can be quite beautiful at times, but I just kept getting lost in all the confusion of who was telling the next story and how it related to anything else that had come before. This would have been much better as just a collection of short stories.
on November 15, 2012
Mr. Fox: Helen Oyeyemi
Imagine creating a novel whose characters decide their own fate and who main character is so unique that you wonder whether the realities he creates are real or just part of his imagination. Mr. Fox is a story of three interesting people. One Mr. Fox, the second Mary Foxe and finally Fox's wife Daphne who seems to be the forgotten sole at the start of this novel. As we hear the dialogue between Fox and Mary and their banter we learn that Daphne is hidden away doing her own thing and never complains about anything. Fox seems to be a dominant character with a strong yet odd personality that makes the reader wonder why Mary Foxe comes barging in and immediately confronts him about the characters he creates in his short stories, the horrors of the violence inflicted on so many and the abuse many women take at his hand or shall I say his pen. St. John Fox has imagined his perfect woman, namely Mary.
The character enters and challenges Mr. Fox to a story duel you might say. Mr. Fox is a writer with an assistant named Mary. Real or fantasy at times it is hard to tell. Fox, kills off many of his characters or applies physical harm to teach them a lesson in his stories. Mary Foxe is incensed and challenges him with a game. Mary Foxe is a figment of his imagination and Mr. Fox within his realm of reality or fantasy creates what he thinks is the perfect female namely Mary. Mary is anything but what his wife Daphne is and arriving out of nowhere or maybe he just decided to conjure her up she comes into the room angry and fit to you might say be tied at the way he handles certain actions in his stories. The violence inflicted on the women in the stories this imaginary woman takes seriously where Mr. Fox states: " it's all just a lot of games."
Some people need the harsh realities of life thrown directly at them and Mary Foxe decides to teach Mr. Fox some very important life lessons. Imagine creating stories where you are the characters, you control the action and you decide who lives and dies. Imagine making the author part of the plot more like an interactive story where you control the outcome, you decide the endings, surprises and you create the many variations on the themes decided. Fairytale or reality you decide after reading the stories for yourself. You decide what lessons are learned and still need to be learned.
The story continues with Dr. Lustucru a graphically told story about a man who decapitates his wife and then regrets it. Remember that this story or book is a retelling of Bluebeard the noble man who killed off his young wives because as the wife in this story asked too many questions and wanted to know too much. But, as Mr. Fox finds his perfect match so to speak in Mary Foxe Bluebeard found one too. One that fights back and the wife in this story fights back in unique way that would not only haunt the doctor but any man who has the same notion to decapitate his wife and then you might say undecapitate her. The ending will surprise you. Next, the author shares some letters from Mary to Mr. Fox and Mr. Fox to Mary each challenging the other in different ways and yet letting the reader know that there is much more to come between these two before all is said and I won't say done but written or played out.
We hear the voice of Mary Foxe as she types away at the stories that she will share with Fox as the challenge begins, she takes the bait and meets him at a bar and the story takes on a different flavor. Whether it is real or fantasy we next hear the voice of Mary as she prepares to meet Mr. Fox, hand him her stories or pages and then he regrettably never shows up. Added in we meet the family that she lives with the girl she tutors and learn more about this Mary Foxe.
Mary Foxe lives with the Cole family and tutors their daughter Katherine. Within this plot we meet another version of Mr. Fox as she corresponds with him, takes the challenge and creates some stories, and then winds up seeing them burned by who is supposedly his secretary as we meet the other Mary Foxe with Fox himself chastising herself for allowing the stories or pages to be burned. The stories flash back and forth between Fox and Mary and Mary and the Coles. The challenge to create stories that both would become more involved in is created by both Mary and Fox and we sometimes see a crossover or blending of stories into one.
The book is filled with magic, realism, fantasy, graphic depictions of violence and the abuse some women take at the hand of men. The themes that I have gleaned in just reading the first five chapters are death, abuse, and the heartache of love.
Mr. St. John Fox, the one that Mary Foxe is angry with and challenges to a writing duel, creates stories where the female character winds up dead. But, not until Mary shows up or creates this challenge does he realize the error of maybe his attitude and ways. Not showing up for their meeting and then the coldness of his secretary and immediately sending us back to where they story begins in his office at home with Mary at his side.
The author flashes back and forth between scenes with Mary and the Cole family and then Mary and Fox. Fox seems transfixed with Mary and plays out some scenes with her as in the beginning of the book where she enters and allows herself to entice him as a man. The other side of Mary living with the Cole's plays out the same type of scene with the father of the girl she is tutors. Which one is real and which is just his imagination? If Mary is an imaginary figure created for him in his mind why can others see her?
As I read this novel I realized that the author created three distinct plots. The first is Mary and Mr. Fox and their banters, games and dares to create stories in which they are both the characters and the end result might not be what the reader expects. The second is the fantasy world of Mary Foxe herself where she imagines herself living with the Coles and searching for someone to have in her life in the chapter in which she is Dream Mary. Finally, we have the stories themselves and the many different plot lines drawing in both characters. Just when you think you have it all figured out the author brings in Daphne, Fox's wife to play a more prominent role. Deciding he is having an affair she tells him she is going to file for divorce and he better no try to stop her. The dialogue and the scene is priceless as he convinces her of his love for her and sort of placates her into staying drawing her into wanting to take part in their game. The many stories are quite unique such as Mr. Fitcher and The Training at Madame De Silentios. In this story we learn of a woman who takes in difficult teenage boys and turns them into perfect suitors. If this really works we could use it in the present today to train some of our teens in proper dating etiquette. The next chapter focuses on Daphne and Mr. Fox hosting a dinner party and Mary Foxe observing from afar. As the night progresses you can tell that the Foxes are just going through the motions and keeping up you might say appearances for the public. As he appears to belittle her and berate poor Daphne at every turn you wonder when she is going to get some spunk and stand up to him as the author weaves Mary into the plot and we learn that no much if anything will change Fox. As she asks: Do you want to stop playing? It seems to this reviewer that Fox lives in his own private fantasy world creating the scenes and outcomes to suit his pleasure and he's using Mary to facilitate his stories and their outcomes. She is more like a vehicle to help him to survive as a man and as a writer.
The remainder of the stories tell about a death on a plane in London followed by Mary's reflections about her father and his death and what part does Daphne play in this dangerous game and what does really happen to her?
The following story deals with Mary staying away after the previous events and Fox trying to win the heart of his wife once again. Would you believe he even tried to teach her to drive, got her driving gloves, as dear Daphne seems to have come alive. So, what is the purpose of the game? Fox and Mary seemed to be missing something in their lives and appeared to be using his other to fill the holes or gaps. Where they trying to court each other and finally fall in love? Were they trying to eliminate Daphne? Why does Mary tell him to turn to his wife when he seems so taken with her even though she is not real? Can in live with realities or only what he wants to create as perfection in his own mind by writing these stories? Hide and Seek is the name of the next story followed by Daphne's voice being heard loud and clear. The author shares her inner most thoughts and feelings with the reader to allow us to get to know her and where she is coming from. We learn about their courtship, their interests, their feelings and the reasons why she wanted St. Fox. But, Daphne comes to a startling revelation about her husband and not only this game but also the contest or rivalry between her and the imaginary Mary. The final stories are My Daughter the Racist, Rules for Lovers which everyone might enjoy reading, and finally an ending which includes an encounter between Daphne and Mary. Reality or fantasy you decide! The last chapter will define the word Fox and you decide why the little girl in the story fears the fox cubs and who she really might be. In the final story Fox takes the role of an actual fox and Mary is an old woman. The analogies, the visuals are quite graphic as we hear the fox speaking as if he was a human and an animal. You decide what you believe and what you don't believe. Just how deadly was this game and did anyone win? Interesting stories that you keep you not only guessing but wondering just how far this game would go if it continued a little longer. You decide after you read this the final outcomes for Fox, Mary and Daphne.
on February 28, 2013
With a book like this, it is difficult to say whether I liked it or not. Stories that are allegorical, with meanings and subtext hidden under layers of words are admirable I feel, because I do appreciate that there is a deeper meaning, but unfortunately I don't always quite know what that meaning is. This book does push you to think about the original fairy tale "Mr. Fox", and the interplay between male and female relationships, especially how it is told in stories. The book is a series of vignettes, with the main plot interrupted by a variety of tales that are told alternately from a male and a female point of view. Each vignette seems to elucidate some aspect of Mr. Fox's (the author) strange relationship with his muse, Mary Foxe. And only later in the novel is the wife, Daphne, given a true voice, which felt a little odd, as I wished I had known her better from the beginning. But then again, I can see how it mirrors the original fairy tale, because only after Daphne knows Mr. Fox's secret can she interact in the story.
As a story, I think this book will appeal to a specific kind of reader, who likes a challenge and who is not as interested in plot and characters but ideas. And good writing, as the author definitely writes lyrical and powerful prose - her writing is something to be savored. As a reworking and commentary on the fairy tale "Mr. Fox," the author seems to have looked at many different angles on the tale, but ultimately I'm not sure what the message is, or what the attitude towards the original tale might be. It's a very readable book however, if you enjoy the different scenarios the author drops you into and the thought-provoking nature of the stories. Personally these kinds of books don't appeal to me in general, but once in a while it is nice to try something different!
on August 1, 2014
Sweet, so sweet. Just sweet and liquid and charming. And tender. As much tenderness as you can imagine in the drop of dew. Or in the eye of a fox. In the lock of a girl's hair. Or maybe in your thoughts about love and romance and all things that could go wrong and right and go wrong again, because they always do. And just like it is in life, fragmented, porous, at times incomprehensible, confusing, and yet still warm and glowing, so is this story, or maybe it's a collection of stories. Yes, something like that. A string of beads. Pieces of one story broken up and reflected in other stories, building one story that you read and think that maybe somehow all of this will come together and then you forget about reading and you drink it. I think I got a dose of sunshine on my tastebuds from reading Mr. Fox. There is no way to really describe what it is all about, but let me try.
There are three people. Mr. Fox, the writer. Mary, a friend and an assistant, but she's something else, which you will figure out while you read the book. And Daphne, Mr. Fox's wife who likes to arrange flowers. They write stories, all three of them. On paper, in their heads, in their dreams, or not, daydreams perhaps is what you can call it. There is also a trace of fairy tales, one in particular. The gruesome story of Bluebeard, the man who dismembered his wives. It's in the background, or perhaps in the foreground, as the theme of connection, the real connection between people. Because all Mr. Fox is doing is writing his books and in those books all he is doing is killing women, and Mary is tired of that, and Daphne is too. And the rest of the story, or all of the story, hops around in time, back and forth, and it's up to the reader to connect it. It's like a woven carpet and you have to unravel it one strand at a time, and then weave it back again, and unravel it again.
Reading this made me think that I can bend writing rules, bend the rules of the stories I am writing, play with them, play with my reader. Read this book, it will lure you in. And if you're a beginning writer, definitely read it to see what you can do with a tale.
on January 19, 2016
This is my second read, and I'm still not sure what this book is about, but I'm charmed by it. It's creative, magical, and engaging -- quirky, too. Who is the author? Who is speaking? Who is being written about? I'll have to read it a third time to figure it out.
on March 25, 2014
Written in her mid-twenties, Helen Oyeyemi's "Mr Fox" is not so much a fully-fledged novel as a delicious entertainment. And as one might expect from such a young author, it is not so much about the experience of Life with a capital L as about the art of Fiction with a capital F, a writer writing about writers and writing.
Fantasy and imagination are the quarries where very young authors gather their diamonds, before Life with a capital L gives them other material. Comparisons with Françoise Sagan, whose "Bonjour Tristesse" was published before she was 20, are interesting. Both authors were garlanded with acclaim and wealth on their first published novels. Sagan, however, never quite lived up to the expectations she created -- whereas Oyeyemi is certain to do so.
"Mr Fox" is full of enchanting narrative games -- stories within stories, characters who leap from an author's imagination and take on lives of their own -- but in the end, the book is as mysterious as that other, now somewhat forgotten, novel about transformations, David Garnett's "Lady Into Fox." (Lady Into Fox and a Man in the Zoo)
Oyeyemi's style is lighter and more colloquial here than in her other novels, but her prose is bewitching, full of arresting images and sparkling turns of phrase. Perhaps the most bewitching thing of all is the effortlessness of this book. It simply materializes out of the air like a phantasmagoria. Structurally, the book reads like a succession of short stories, novellas and epistolatory exchanges, each time making a new start and exploring new stories with apparently unbounded inventiveness.
I devoutly hope that Helen Oyeyemi's desire to write lasts a lifetime, and that she lets us share in what life gives her to write about.
I can't imagine any reader who won't be delighted by this book. Very highly recommended.