A person could die trying to love him

Mr Fox
by Helen Oyeyemi

This is a strange and beautiful book. It has disjuncts that cannot be explained but somehow the whole works anyway.

St John Fox is a writer in New York City with a sweet, devoted wife in Daphne and a spirited muse in Mary Foxe, who is no less of a threat to Mrs Fox because her husband made her up. After, all that makes Mary his perfect woman.

Mary accuses St John of killing her off in one of his stories and so begins their game. His short stories are interspersed into the narrative, often starring Mary and/or himself. But the reality, after all, includes an imaginary woman, so is that just one of Mr Fox’s stories too?

Through St John’s imagination Mary can switch from wickedly playful to sweet and timid: from “Abominable Mr Fox, Contemptible Mr Fox, Nefarious Mr Fox,” to “But what can I do for Jonas? Last summer I spent almost an hour blowing dandelions off their stems towards him, so that he had a chance to wish for everything he wanted. He was very polite about it, but it can’t have meant much to him. Jonas thinks about eternity and other things that make wishes seem tiny and silly.”

The stories are disconnected by place (Europe, Asia, Africa) but also time. Mr Fox appears to be living and writing in the 1930s but some of the integrated stories (possibly all?) appear to be set in the present. Not the 2010s as someone in the 1930s might have imagined it, but as it really is. There are also some stories that appear to have no link at all to Mr Fox and his two women, aside from the fact that he is trying to write a love story with a happy ending (at which he continually fails).

These sound like problems or accusations, but they are somehow not. I loved this book. It is magical and inventive and surprising. Oyeyemi’s language is wonderful; simply phrased but with such imagination.

“She looked into his eyes – they were like a famine. Seeing them sent hurt and light through her. His eyes kept asking, asking, and she knew that a person could die trying to love him.”

A real treat.

Published 2011 by Picador.