Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr. Fox revolves around three characters and the set of narratives that inform them. St. John Fox is an author of slasher tales: the women in his stories always die, usually gruesomely. Mary Foxe is his assistant, or muse, a woman he dreamed up when he was in the trenches during the first World War. And Daphne is Fox’s wife, their marriage strained by years of distance and lack of connection. “Mr. Fox” is also, of course, a English Bluebeard story, in which the title character murders and chops up his female victims until his clever wife Lady Mary turns the tables on him. Bluebeard winds his way through this book in many guises, from Reynardine to “Fitcher’s Bird” to Yoruba folk tales. The question Oyeyemi poses in Mr. Fox is, how can we tell these stories, even stories of love and violence, in a new way? How can we connect through story? What does it mean to change the narrative, and how does it change us in return?
The premise of the book is established in its first few playful chapters, when Mary Foxe (who ought to be imaginary) “saunters in for a handshake”: Mary is tired of seeing Fox kill off all his women protagonists, and she implies that he’s avoiding the scarier no-man’s land of human connection. Decapitation and dismemberment, she says, are an easy out. What about what happens before death? This is a satisfying way to reframe violence against women in films and books: it’s not just the act, it’s the artistic shirking.
Fox and Foxe start to collaborate, tentatively, and a series of back-and-forth storytelling follows. The reader is left to decide which story is told by whom as the two authors create new narratives, trying to avoid the old gruesome ending (though there are deaths, and at least one more murder, because Mr. Fox can’t help it.) The two characters appear in each other’s stories, but at first they don’t meet, because if there’s no murdering and no dismemberment, how are people supposed to interact? By letter, perhaps, or by proxy, or by far-off glimpses. These two are still figuring out the rules, and so are we: these early stories are lighter and have a bit of a sense of a puzzle to solve.
Later, though, the stories are far richer, as Foxe and Fox begin to dig into the real nature of human connection, violence, and love. Here, the characters connect, even if the connections are sometimes painful, sometimes fraught, sometimes creative or nourishing even through sorrow. The violence changes from the cartoonish slasher-murder that Mr. Fox used to avoid connection, to the real emotional violence of human life and love. And the stories draw us in: a model whose father is dying after committing a tragic act of domestic abuse; towns occupied by foreign armies; a very strange prep school; a fox and his lover. These narratives are complicated and tender, and they have consequences: Mr. Fox’s real life and marriage become more and more relevant, and Mary Foxe becomes more solid herself — less of an imaginary muse and more of a woman with her own will and desire.
This book drew me in, rather as Mr. Fox drew women into his lair, or as Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox drew women into his stories. But I wasn’t killed. Instead, I was given something new: a new way to look at story, to put aside my assumptions and look at the world as it is. Oyeyemi’s language is fresh and beautiful, and this narratively fascinating book provides a wonderful way to turn the old oppressive lair inside out and see what was in there all along.