Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox
One of the more delightfully unconventional narratives in recent memory
Helen Oyeyemi’s playful, audacious and often breathtaking new novel, Mr. Fox, begins with an accusation: “You kill women.” The accuser: the wickedly funny muse come-to-life, Mary Foxe. The accused: St. John Fox, the mid-century author of dark little books that always end with his female characters dying in gruesome ways. As Mary challenges Mr. Fox to treat his female characters differently — “Just be flexible,” she says — a game commences, and one of the more delightfully unconventional narratives in recent memory begins to unfold.
A good swath of the book, which in many ways is a retelling of the Bluebeard story, is comprised of extremely clever short stories co-written by Fox and Foxe. In this struggle, Mary insistently tries to get Mr. Fox to treat his female characters better, often with little success. There is also a separate storyline where we learn more about Mr. Fox’s life, and his tumultuous relationship with his real-life wife, Daphne, who objects to the his relationship with his fictional universe and, by extension, Mary. (“Why have husbands got to keep themselves all locked up, that’s what I want to know,” wonders Daphne.)
Mr. Fox is Oyeyemi’s fourth novel — she is just 26, and has won numerous awards — and she handles the complexities of the novel deftly and purposefully. Again and again, we see female characters get crushed in various ways, either physically or emotionally, which sounds sort of oppressive, but actually becomes empowering. As the stories get richer and darker, the novel begins to feel more expansive. And suddenly the female characters begin to thrive. There is still a struggle between all the voices — there will always be a struggle — but Oyeyemi presents a hopeful vision for love and equality in the end.