Mr. Fox does not know what to do with the women in his books. Or, rather, he knows of only one thing to do with them. He kills them. Roberta saws off her hand and foot and bleeds to death at a church altar. Louise is mistaken for her traitorous brother and shot. And Mrs. McGuire hangs herself because she’s afraid of her husband’s reaction when she burns dinner. But Mary Foxe is out to change all that. Mary, an imaginary assistant and a sort of muse, has decided he’s a serial killer, and she’s going to make him do better.
Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe start writing each other stories—sometimes, in fact, writing each other into stories—and, through the stories, they explore the ways men use women and writers use characters. Mr. Fox has a hard time changing his killing ways, and Mary scolds him for it:
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 man, just bizarre—but you offer them with such confidence. It was barbecue 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 makes dramatic sense; it was because “nothing is more poetic than the death if a beautiful woman”; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.
This is a book about how stories matter, about how the stories we tell shape our world. Mary Foxe wants Mr. Fox to tell better stories, and by pushing him to do so, she pushes him toward becoming a better man. The early stories, darkly comic and violent, become richer, as the characters try to understand each other, rather than slashing into each other. A complication emerges when Mr. Fox’s wife, Daphne, starts to appear in the stories and to intervene in the relationship between Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe.
Helen Oyeyemi’s books are as much about atmosphere as they are about story. I’ve never been quite sure about everything that’s happening in any of her books, and this one was no different. For example, it’s not always clear which stories were by Mr. Fox and which were by Mary Foxe, although perhaps it doesn’t matter, since it’s all Mr. Fox (sort of). Some of the stories themselves were good on their own, but what I really liked about this book was the way the stories grow and eventually intertwine with life. The writers make the stories and the stories make the writers. And so they grow together, each in their own way.