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Mr. Fox Hardcover – September 29, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2011: Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox uses a series of interconnected vignettes to capture the love triangle between wry, self-absorbed writer St. John Fox, his wife, Daphne, and his imagined muse, Mary Foxe. As his muse Mary takes form on the page, St. John struggles to maintain his already tenuous marriage. Through different time periods and characters, he writes and rewrites Mary Foxe as an embodiment of unrequited love: the young girl who removes her heart to alleviate heartache; the nanny tasked with caring for a cold, apathetic teenager; the fearful daughter reliving her father’s stories of the tragedies that befall rebellious children. Through them all is the shared and often feverish complexity that comes with sustained relationships. Oyeyemi published The Icarus Girl at just 19, so it’s no wonder that this, her fourth novel, sets a high literary bar. With clever, tender, and often poignant prose, she captures the magic and heartbreak of the love story. --Heather Dileepan
Smith: What’s in a name? Why is Mr. Fox called Mr. Fox?
Oyeyemi: Mr. Fox is called Mr. Fox because I think of him as both wild and urbane; also he’s a namesake of the English Bluebeard and an even older mythological lady killer, Reynardine (from the French for fox, Reynard). This book is full of foxes and foxgloves and fox trotting and all things fox. As to why the book itself is called Mr. Fox, that’s partly because calling it Mary Foxe seemed like bad luck for Mary--books and films that have a woman’s name as their title seem to end up with the woman dead or insane or bereft in some way, and I like Mary too much for that. But also one of my favorite writers, Barbara Comyns, wrote a book about a wily man called Mr. Fox in 1987, and even though I didn’t know about it or read it until I’d finished writing about my own Mr. Fox, I can’t help but think that’s got something to do with this business somehow.
Smith: Where does this story come from and did it go where you thought it would go? What was the process of writing this one like?
Oyeyemi: This story comes from having read Rebecca, which made me want to have a go at writing a Bluebeard story. Then I started reading (and re-reading) Bluebeard variants, from Jane Eyre to Alice Hoffmann’s Blue Diary to the Joseph Jacobs fairy tale “Mr. Fox,” which features a kind of linguistic battle between Mr. F. and the heroine, Lady Mary, who witnesses a murder he commits and has the guts to tell him all about himself to his face. So then I had two characters, and I was off.
Smith: What does it mean to lose the plot? Is story different from plot? If so, how, and do they need each other? And why or why not?
Oyeyemi: I reckon losing the plot means finding the story. The plot gets you from A to B and home again, but the story is the surrounding wilderness that you wander into, and then the bears come, and it’s impossible to tell which ones would like to invite you to a picnic and which ones would like to make a picnic of you, because they look exactly the same until you’re right up close. So I think you do need plot if you’d rather not risk approaching a story’s bears, either as a reader or a writer--it depends on what sort of story it is. Some stories don’t have very interesting bears. (Maybe you don’t agree? Maybe you think all bears of this kind are interesting, or at least, more interesting than the plot path?)
Smith: If you, like me, think that books produce books, which books are germinal to this one? And if you don’t think that, then where do books come from?
Oyeyemi: Yes, books beget books; I’d say they’re the leading cause of today’s plague of books, and may we never be cured. Rebecca caused this one, and Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde, Anne Sexton’s Transformations, Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, Gombrowicz’s Bacacay, Daniil Kharms’s Incidences, Susanna Moore’s In the Cut, and Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, too.
Smith: What was in your pockets when you began this book, and what’s in them now that you’ve finished it? i.e., what’s next?
Oyeyemi: When I started writing Mr. Fox, it was summer, and I was interested in cupcakes and foxes and Mills and Boon books written in the 1930s. Now I’m interested in fudge and wolves and self-appointed executioners.
Thank you for asking me these questions; they’re a delight.
(Photo of Helen Oyeyemi © Saneesh Sukumaran)
(Photo of Ali Smith ©Sarah Wood)
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Top Customer Reviews
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!
It is dark at times. And it gets confusing. If you like to passively read a story, and don't like a little confusion then this will probably not be a good book for you.
The author tells her story with vignettes, so you are easily pushed on from one chapter to the next. However, these vignettes are not all chronological, and you do have to orient yourself a few times. Some are stories written by one of the main characters St. John Fox, other chapters are of his life and some are from the perspective of his muse Mary. Despite the changing perspective, the book was written beautifully. The stories with little bearing on the plot have actually stayed with me more than the overall story.
I don't think this is the kind of book you will want to bring to the beach however. If you are looking for a light summer read maybe look elsewhere. This book is best enjoyed on a cloudy day with a warm cup of chai tea. At least I think so!