Review: Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Mr FoxPretty much a love song to Angela Carter, Mr Fox is a tangled web of stories centred around their well-to-do author in the 1930s, St John Fox, his wife Daphne, and his ‘muse’, Mary Foxe. It’s a book that demands careful attention to get everything out of it (and I think I’m going to have to go back and read it again for this reason), but that also skips along exuberantly.

Each tale is an exploration or a play on the Bluebeard legend – the story (also taken on by Carter) of the serial wife-murderer who gives his latest wife the key to a room she’s forbidden to enter. When she does, finding the bodies of his previous victims, she seals her own fate. In Oyeyemi’s spin on the tail, Mr Fox is a serial slasher writer who can’t help but kill of the women in his stories. As half-participant, half-muse in these stories, Mary Foxe is tired of the bloodshed:

“What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic. People read what you write and they say, ‘Yes, he is talking about things that really happen,’ and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre–but you offer them with such confidence. It was because she kept the chain on the door; it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day’s scraping and bowing at work; it was because she was irritating and stupid; it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him; it was because she had to die, she just had to, it made dramatic sense; it was because ‘nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman’; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.”

In protest against the narrative satisfaction of a dame done in and her killer’s remorse, redemption or discovery, Mary Foxe proposes a different set of stories. It’s up to the reader to discern whether it is she, Mr Fox, or later Daphne, who is the author. Characters slip in and out of reality and lapse from one story to the next, which can be a disorienting experience if you don’t a) pay attention or b) stop worrying about it. Some stories work better than others but that’s probably a question of taste: I enjoyed ‘fitcher’s bird’ for the blunt rejection of fairytale logic, ‘My Daughter the Racist’, although as that separately won a short story prize before Mr Fox’s publication, it doesn’t entirely mesh with the others, and ‘some foxes’ which was a genuinely moving end to the novel, coming full circle and creating a new myth out of the problems of male-female communication, but one that results in stilted co-operation, rather than death.

If I had a gripe about the novel, it was that Oyeyemi didn’t quite seem to do justice to the 1930s ‘meta’ storyline (maybe she was as sick of him as the women in the novel). While there is some working through of the problems in St John and Daphne’s marriage, it’s hard to see where exactly St John owns up to his responsibility for his female characters, and his total self indugence in his infatuation with Mary. Also, while the Yoruba story is really interesting, it isn’t something that a 1930s author could really write, and My Daughter the Racist, draws heavily on Western intervention in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, even if it does not mention them by name. While other stories mesh seamlessly into Mr Fox’s life, the segue is much more stilted when Oyeyemi tries to fit these anachronistic tales into his broader story. But it’s hard to see how you could reconcile this, when ultimately Mr Fox is doing service to Oyeyemi’s wider ideas about violence towards women in fiction – and its very real dangers. I also felt like sometimes Mary Foxe’s laconic demeanour actually did her a disservice – sometimes I wanted rage and fury when instead I got a sad, noir-ish drag of a cigarette and an imploring ‘Don’t look at me’. Unlike in Angela Carter’s writing, there isn’t a full working through of her ideas – Mr Fox’s misogyny is challenged, but I’m not sure it’s ever really thwarted.

That said, this is the kind of book where everything shifts on a second reading, and it’s worth at least that.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Fantastic.

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