Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

DATE FINISHED: May 16th, 2012

RATED: **** 

SYNOPSIS:  Author St. John Fox stands accused of multiple murder – by his own muse and creation Mary Foxe. He also finds himself on the brink of divorce from his jealous wife, Daphne, who believes he is having an affair. Is St. John in love with Mary or Daphne? And does choosing one necessarily mean the end of the other? What’s a man to do?

THOUGHTS: Stories within stories, slipping times and locations, where do memories and fantasies collide and divide? If you prefer a linear narrative, this is not the book for you. It reads like a dream, fragmenting when you try to make sense of it, but coming together in an inexplicable but satisfying way. Thankfully, Oyeyemi is cleverer than her potentially pretentious premise (and structure), and while I began reading sceptically, by the end I was hugely entertained by the way she turned the tables.  (Although I was not quite convinced by the actual final chapter, feeling that the narrative had already reached its natural conclusion by that point.)

The plot stems from the contrived premise of a character coming to life with accusations against her creator. But as St. John writes and re-writes, constructs, deconstructs and reconstructs Mary’s life (/lives) more and more is revealed about him and his own life. At first I was unconvinced by what seemed like a thin framing device for a collection of short stories. I was marginally annoyed by that, because I really enjoyed the individual short stories (and I am not usually a fan of story collections) and thought framing them as a novel was something of a cheat doing neither novel nor stories justice. The stories have a different rhythm to the connecting tissue of St John Fox’s ‘real’ life and interaction with Mary, echoing the formula of fairy tale. In fact, several of the stories are re-workings of traditional tales (Reynardine, Fitcher’s Bird), and in fact, as I read on and realised how the stories and framework intersect, this built up to a realisation that the entire novel is a re-working of the aforementioned tales, and it all began to make a lot more sense as a whole.

I did this book an injustice by approaching it with scepticism (despite wanting to like it) and trying to analyse too early what turned out not to be the themes of the story. I was very pleasantly surprised by the journey on which this unexpected (love) story took me, and am already looking forward to reading it again on a future occasion, without my own pre-conceptions clouding my expectations. Next time, I will just sit back and enjoy the ride.

“Dormice caught Brown’s reflection in the dark shine of their eyes and ran away with it.”

FOLLOWING ON:  The relationship between art and reality is explored in different ways in The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson and A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll & Hyde by Kevin MacNeil.  The fairy tale as psychological metaphor reminded me of In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig.  The concept of creations coming to life is explored less successfully in Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake, and  the Pygmalion parallel should probably also be drawn.  Although stylistically & thematically otherwise as dissimilar as they come, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde also considers what happens when a fictional character steps from the written page.

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