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Helen Oyeyemi: Mr Fox

Using myths and fairy tales has long been one of strategies of feminist writers. Angela Carter is just one example. Oyeyemi tells the story of St John Fox, 1930s US fiction writer, who is seemingly misogynistic. Indeed, in the opening segment, Mary Foxe (no relation but though claiming to be related to John Foxe), his fictitious muse, comments on his latest work:

Can you tell me why it’s necessary for Roberta to saw off a hand and a foot and bleed to death at the church altar?” She flipped through a couple more pages. “Especially given that this other story ends with Louise falling to the ground riddled with bullets, the mountain rebels having mistaken her for her traitorous brother. And must Mrs. McGuire hang herself from a door handle because she’s so afraid of what Mr. McGuire will do when he gets home and finds out that she’s burnt dinner? From a door handle?

Fox is currently married to his third wife, Daphne, and Daphne is jealous of Mary, even though she does not exist. We follow Mary and Fox as they play various roles (e.g. Mary as a nanny to a girl that no-one likes, not even, it would seem, her mother), come up with stories (Dr. Lustucru’s wife was not particularly talkative. But he beheaded her anyway, thinking to himself that he could replace her head when he wished for her to speak.) and pursue their respective imaginary and real lives. Daphne is involved, which makes things more complicated (She said she ought to burn the house down, and she just might do it, while I was sleeping. She said I was a dead man walking.) and Oyeyemi throws in Yoruba myths and fairy stories. That Fox is a Bluebeard is clear, even if his violent misogyny is (primarily) limited to his books and, of course, the name is meant to conjure up the wicked fox of the fairy tale, as opposed to Mary Foxe, conjuring up the Virgin Mary and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (this is explained to us, for those who do not get it.)

Can the sparring lead to a reformed, non-misogynistic Mr Fox? Mary conjures up Madame de Silentio’s Husband Academy where potential husbands are taught Strong Handshakes, Silence, Rudimentary Car Mechanics, How to Mow the Lawn, Explosive Displays of Authority, Sport and Nutrition Against Impotence. He is imagined in another role, a psychiatrist instead of an author. But, as her father says the world was sick. Mr Fox would run away with Mary if she were real but she is not. But despite the humour, the stories and the witticisms, this one just did not work for me and I think other critics have found it baffling. Good marks for intentions but fewer for execution.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Riverhead Books