Book Review: Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Posted January 9, 2014 by Renae // 5 Comments

Book Review: Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Title: Mr. Fox
Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Release Date: September 29, 2011
Publisher: Riverhead
Rating:

Summary from Goodreads:

Fairy-tale romances end with a wedding, and the fairy tales don't get complicated. In this book, the celebrated writer Mr. Fox can't stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It's not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently.

Mary challenges Mr. Fox to join her in stories of their own devising; and in different times and places, the two of them seek each other, find each other, thwart each other, and try to stay together, even when the roles they inhabit seem to forbid it. Their adventures twist the fairy tale into nine variations, exploding and teasing conventions of genre and romance, and each iteration explores the fears that come with accepting a lifelong bond. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox's game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

Using nontraditional storytelling methods, Helen Oyeyemi offers readers a book that’s a strange, magical tribute to fairy tales and commentary on portrayal of fictional women as victims. Mr. Fox isn’t the easiest novel to get through, but it’s more than worth the effort, as beneath the complex layers and interwoven with the author’s sublime prose is an excellent book.

Oyeyemi’s titular Mr. Fox is a man who, rather like Bluebeard, has a penchant for killing women just as they think they’re getting their happily ever after. Mr. Fox’s women, however, are fictional—he’s a writer. Many think his mountain of dead female characters is a bit odd—especially Mary Foxe, his muse. Whether or not Mary Foxe is a figment of Mr. Fox’s imagination is something the book toys with, but in either case, Mary delivers a very sound lecture to her creator, which is honestly one of the most right-on passages I’ve read in a long time.

“What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic. 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 makes 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 just obscene to make such things reasonable.”

And it’s such a good point she’s making. Portraying women as victims—as nothing except victims—is problematic at best. Throughout Mr. Fox, Oyeyemi makes pointed commentary on sexism, both in the past and in the modern world. I especially loved when she wrote about Victorians sending their sons to finishing schools so they would make Proper and Docile husbands to Intelligent and Wealthy wives—such a great parody of the Cult of Domesticity.

However, Mr. Fox is not too terribly loud-mouthed in making its point. It’s a novel of stories-within-stories-within-stories, and the many layers give the book a fairytale, whimsical feel that’s nevertheless dark, reminiscent of Angela Carter’s fairytale retellings. First, one could say this is a collection of short stories—excellent, haunting short stories that are memorable in the extreme. Then we add the layer that Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe are writing the stories, engaged in a battle of wills, literally flinging them at each other to prove a point. The final layer is the more complex—is Mary Foxe real? does Mr. Fox love Mary, or does he love his wife? The entire book is assembled in a masterful, graceful way, and I really can’t fault Oyeyemi at all.

Additionally, Helen Oyeyemi’s prose is astonishingly beautiful. Her word choice, her imagery, her sentence construction—all flawless. The stories-within-stories take readers across the world, back and forth in time, and the author’s skills with words was evident at every juncture. I honestly couldn’t even pull out some of my favorite passages, because it’s too difficult to pick two sentences out of 300 pages of perfection.

As evidenced by Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi’s talent is formidable. Her writing style, her theme, the way she tackles a difficult narrative structure are all admirable, even more so because these elements were achieved flawlessly. This book is one to take note of, to savor, and to remember.

Renae has written book reviews and other miscellany for Respiring Thoughts since 2012. She loves dogs, Mexican food, mountains, Shakespeare, and procrastinating. She's currently working on an undergrad degree in English/Spanish lit in the Midwest. Connect with Renae on Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr.

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