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Mr. Fox

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It’s a bright afternoon in 1938 and Mary Foxe is in a confrontational mood. St John Fox, celebrated novelist, hasn’t seen her in six years. He’s unprepared for her afternoon visit, not least because she doesn’t exist. He’s infatuated with her. But he also made her up.
“You’re a villain,” she tells him. ‘A serial killer . . . can you grasp that?”
Will Mr Fox meet his muse’s challenge, to stop murdering his heroines and explore something of love? What will his wife Daphne think of this sudden change in her husband? Can there be a happy ending – this time?

278 pages, Paperback

First published June 3, 2011

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About the author

Helen Oyeyemi

34 books4,911 followers
Helen Oyeyemi is a British novelist. She lives in Prague with an ever-increasing perfume wardrobe- let’s just say the bottle count exceeds 150 but is less than 300- and has written ten books so far, none of which involve ‘magical realism’. (Can’t fiction sometimes get extra fictional without being called such names?!) Number One Daydream these days: writing a novel or story that inspires a fragrance.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,702 reviews
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
792 reviews
December 6, 2015
Helen Oyeyemi can write voices. Men’s voices, women’s voices, English voices, American voices, Nigerian voices, French voices, human voices, animal voices.
I’d trust her to write an authentic voice from any geographical location, any time frame, any political situation, any gender, any species.
Because Helen Oyeyemi truly owns the world she lives in.

She can write stories that become novels and novels made from stories.
She can write in different styles, be it myth or modern.
She can play around with form so that the frame is the story and the story is the frame.
She can step through the fourth wall and reach out to pinch the reader awake.
Hey, she says, you weren't expecting that, were you? And she takes us by the wrist and yanks us into the narrative. We drag our heels a little at first and complain that we don’t want it to be like that, we simply want to read by the rules. Can't you keep the roles clear, we protest - the reader’s role, the writer’s role, the narrator’s role, the other characters’ roles, none of this mixing and mingling, thank you very much.
Oh, come on, she says, raising her eyes to the skies. Don’t you remember anything you learned from Calvino’s traveler!

So we stop struggling, and start smiling, and it’s perfect.
Profile Image for Julie.
555 reviews275 followers
December 5, 2013
This is not a book for the light of mind, or faint of heart.

There is such a haunting, beautiful ... emptiness ... to it all, that I feel I should be giving it more stars than I am. Every body else seems to think it's a good read, and so I must be missing something, right? But the majority of those who say what a good book it really is don't seem to know why.

Let me suggest a Poem:

I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.

If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumours on our lips
it is because I hear a man climb stairs
and clear his throat outside our door.

- Leonard Cohen -

Oyeyemi writes so beautifully, I found myself giving over to her seduction without knowing why, other than her words compelled me forward along the path into the woods, like a Siren's call. Once into the woods, she lost me completely, however, and like Little Red Riding Hood I made a valiant attempt to extricate myself from the misery by bolstering my courage and carrying on by the strength of bread crumbs and the light of the faint, faint moon. Surely the path that led me into the woods would eventually lead me out.

Not so.

Everyone in the woods was on a self-medicated high, more interested in navel-gazing than looking above their heads to find a compass direction; nor were they there to offer guidance to the others who stumbled around in the darkness.

Ostensibly a re-writing of the Bluebeard fairy tale, Mr Fox is a clever little conceit that doesn't quite work. Bluebeard was cautionary and instructive, as most folk/fairy tales are. Mr. Fox, persona, is a bore. It feels like Oyeyemi is working too hard to give the old fairy tale a new writing without being able to bring to it the weight and substance of the original.

I didn't find any particular depth to the exploration of relationships: it's all quite mundane. Oyeyemi's allegory looks very much like real life to me, and hence the tale falls far short of addressing greater truths in love and marriage.

The purpose of a fairy tale is to provide the readers with a useful tool which can be used to navigate the pitfalls of life. A meta-tool, if you will: something greater and more powerful than oneself which gives us the power to fight the evil lurking without. Thus, the rapist, the bully, the controlling partner, the manipulative companion, the murdering spouse are all dealt handily, and modes of directing the situation are offered. Quite simply: problem presented and solved.

A fairy tale is a guide book to the psyche. Nothing in Mr Fox suggests to me that Oyeyemi has provided such a "moral chaperone", if you will. Rather, hers is merely a reflection of the problem. Mirrors don't solve problems; they only reproduce and copy what's already there -- and so what's the point? Why would you want to make the monster "more scary", as children will say, by making more copies of him in the funhouse mirror? Wouldn't you want to neutralize the situation, at the very least? (Pun not intended!)

Oyeyemi is a brilliant, brilliant writer because she is able to seduce you into the unintended. I look forward to her other novels, but in this case, I'm the lady on the sidelines of the parade whispering, the Empress has no clothes.

Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,359 reviews792 followers
December 17, 2015
He shrugged. "These are our circumstances. I'm just trying to make sense of them," he said.
Mary was silent.
"Everyone dies." He smiled crookedly. "I doubt it's ever a pleasant experience. So does it really matter how it happens?"
"Yes!" She put a hand on his arm, trying to pass her shock through his skin. "Yes."
This starts off cute, then begins to cut. It's metafiction, but in the sense of reality feeding books feeding reality, the recursiveness of ideology as word turns work in the most common sensical and, indeed, the most insidious of ways. Tropes in one, taken for granted on the other, and our balancing act in between.

There's a story here, a fairy tale, one of those modern takes on the age old whimsy and atrocity of Grimm and Perrault and even further back. Rather, the fairy tale is the most cohesive trend, as inspiration births inspiration and the effort to transcribe both plot and its endless commentary brings forth the pages. For the author has a message for you, reader, but do not fret. This candy house is not the one you should be fearing, as all its clever treacle and discomforting tart have nothing on the love and languor of Bluebeard and Co.

Yes, and Co. Bluebeard kills his wives because, because, because. Because they discovered the bodies of his victims? Because they disobeyed him? Because he loved them too much? Because, because, because. You'd be amazed at the reasons why men kill women, except, perhaps, you won't be. To a horrendous degree, you won't be, for a crime of passion, for the girlfriend in the refrigerator, for the 'the death of a beautiful woman', you have been immured for as long as life.

I didn't sign up for this, you say. What happened to the fairy tale? The meta? The cute? Oh, were the myriad twists and turns and delving into a deepening complexity of the story and its storyteller not enough? Can your entertainment not be thematic? Can there not be a deeper meaning to it all, an all to acute commentary on an all too terrifying truth, a message of importance broadcasted to each and every flipper of the pages? One would have to wonder, then, whether the matter of a 'classic' is in fact a huge misnomer, and the 'elitists' are truly out to get you.

Oh, they are. Just not like that. Come back when you've stretched your senses a little in the theoretical manner, eyed what makes sense and excruciatingly probe that making of sense, and reason out the logic of honor killing, murder-suicide, and femicide. The first two may target males and the latter has the alternative form of androcide, but ask yourself what immediately comes to mind. Then wonder why.
"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 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 obscene to make such things reasonable."
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 120 books159k followers
January 23, 2013
I enjoyed this because it is so imaginative and clever but I found it hard to finish and didn't feel like I "got" it. This was one of those books that was so enamored with its conceit that at times it loses the reader. Still, this is an audacious, important book well worth reading.
Profile Image for Sonja.
5 reviews67 followers
December 4, 2013
I am so pleased that I picked up this book, because it has reminded me that life is far too short to persist with books that you don't like. This book is so capital-m Meta that it's probably illegal to write a review of it. Luckily, the novel was so busy interrogating tropes and questioning literary conventions and borrowing from genres that it didn't even notice when I shut it at about page 100 and shelved it.

I want a story and characters, which probably makes me more conservative than a Mad Men protagonist. I do like witty, I like clever, I do. I just want some way to engage on an emotional level. Otherwise, I might as well go and reading Stephen Hawking or a cookbook.
Profile Image for Friederike Knabe.
400 reviews156 followers
July 29, 2012
Mr. Fox is about the most enchanting and captivating book I have read in quite some time. Helen Oyeyemi is a highly inventive and multi-faceted storyteller. Her characters are both anchored in reality and in the worlds of fantasy and fairy tales. They can be serious or funny and ironic, they can fall in love beyond bounds or hate with a passion, they can be docile and subdued or vicious and violent. Underneath it all are serious issues being addressed despite the playful manner in which the novel is written. The stories within this story jump with ease from one level of reality to another and back at the blink of an eye. If there is anything like a plot, it is secondary to the characters and stories they live and/or imagine for themselves and for each other. What is it about? Well, that is difficult to explain without revealing too much. The enjoyment is in the exploring of it bit by bit...

Just a few hints: Remember the story of Bluebeard? The noble man who had a track record of killing his young wives because they were too curious? Until, that is, when he came across one that was the right match for him: she fought back. There is also an ancient, similar story of a Mister Fox... and foxes are important to Oyeyemi's story. With Mr. Fox she has created a modern version of the old fairy tale, adding modern life's complexities through any number of original twists and turns. Her Mr. St. John Fox is a well-known writer who creates stories where, unfortunately, the heroine... well, you get the sense of it. Until a female challenger turns up and everything is up for grabs. To add another layer to the stories, there are three in this union... And yes, there is a subtle delicate structure to the novel, a bit like a jigsaw where all the pieces will fit in the end in some way.

Mr. Fox is a book that will not be great fun for readers who like a linear plot or story lines. The stories within the story lead the reader to places around the world and beyond, personal challenges are issued all the time, and the voices change (or do they?). It is quite a ride, funny, heart-warming and full of surprises.
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews967 followers
October 10, 2015
2 stars
3 stars
4 stars
4.5 stars
5 stars!!

Well I liked the opening, but it took me a while to get over the slime of St John, the sleaziness he spread everywhere. There was a voice, a piping, femme-seeming voice struggling with self-confidence that seemed to be Mary's, but nothing was clean, there was this fug of the male gaze. The women were preoccupied with their looks, their attractiveness, craving male attention. But this gender horror is real, rape culture is in us, there is no pure desire, pure self we can hear inside us like a bell, we can't wash off the slime, we have to heal, slowly, with help, with difficulty, incompletely...

I found the writing beautiful. Crisp and original, sensitive and honest, observant and courageous. And it makes me work, I have to sift the brilliant insights from the deliberate dross of patriarchal cliche, the bad excuses for dead women, the bad sex scenes, the pat descriptions of feeling, the clunky symbols (the gift of a caged nightingale?) left orphaned to highlight their silence (or did I just fail to read the signified?) In short, feminist unsurprise is mixed with surprise. Men in bookshops hold weighty, joyless tomes (nod). Mary realises she is unhappy, and that she can survive it (ah!). It's quite difficult, it's bumpy, this reading, but life has this slubby texture too, and by not smoothing the way here Oyeyemi reminds us again and again that protest, rebellion, healing and remaking can't take place in a cleanroom purged of culture, enacted by pure uncorrupted subjects. We the sullied, the colonised, must remake our world from what it is and what we can pull out of ourselves.

The unreliability and complicity of writers and readers is played out in so many ways. A women confesses: 'My body, with its pain and mess and hunger – if I could have bribed it to go away, I would have'. Here is that violent Cartesian dualism that feminism, like other philosophies and movements, has often refuted, yet I myself am constantly repeating its language, tearing self from self. If there are so many contexts where we experience 'the body' as a betrayer, how can biopolitical awareness and (hopefully) praxis respond? Oyeyemi complicates, makes all selves, mixed desires, facets of an unstable whole that could perhaps be held together by love. Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays speaks of experience or sense data as a 'shimmer of truths', perhaps the same shimmer observed by 'the witness' in The Four-Gated City. Does Oyeyemi elaborately dethrone 'the witness'?

Clearly, witnessing is important. The gaze of St John dominates many of the early sections. There is a link between the gaze and desire that becomes clear when St John shrinks from, becomes angry at, launches into a sexist diatribe against, the women 'who look back'. Until this point, female desire has been a desire for submission. The women who look back are 'trouble'; they will not submit; their desire is for control. This is Oyeyemi's move. She answers the male word, looks back at the (white) male gaze (Mary covers St John's eyes), reshapes the material of fairytale (Bluebeard, for one) and conventional (read patriarchal) narrative over and over, until it serves. It isn't glorious, but it serves. The scars are in it, but there are no more dead women conveniently patching the fabric. There are no more bad reasons not to love, no more shoddy excuses for shoddy literature.

What patches the fabric then? Stories, like My Daughter the Racist, shining with the coherence of parable. This one, which I adore, and will read again and again, reminded me of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Also, as in The Hearing Trumpet and other feminist writing, Oyeyemi works a kinship with animals, reinterpreting processes of learning language and bodily experience. In a way, she hands over to men the work to be done. Remake yourselves, for we have been busy already, we are tired. It's your turn.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
January 9, 2020
Fantastical and full of mystery, Mr. Fox offers a series of surreal, enigmatic variations on the titular fairytale, along with “Bluebeard.” Each tale starts simply but takes many unexpected turns and becomes increasingly baroque, and all are framed by an overarching narrative, in which St. John Fox, a famous novelist, is admonished by Mary Fox, a figure of his imagination, to not write sexist novels normalizing violence against women. As the work unfolds characters start to hop across stories and the frame itself becomes mystifying. Oyeyemi writes mesmerizing prose, and her chaotic plots are unforgettable, if sometimes inscrutable.
Profile Image for Rincey.
813 reviews4,588 followers
January 29, 2015
I went into this with a slight disadvantage since I don't really know the fairytales/folklore that this book plays with, so I feel like I missed out on a lot of the interesting things that Oyeyemi does here. Also, this is Meta with a capital "M" which I can sometimes enjoy but I think a full novel and pushing and pulling and twisting literary devices got to be a bit wearing for me.

However, man can Oyeyemi write a story. If I took this as a short story collection, then man, these are some freaking good stories. I would find myself getting completely pulled in and falling into these weird and wacky worlds. I just wished there was a more clear thread to follow throughout them all, but that may just be my simpleton mind not being able to get it all.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
617 reviews767 followers
February 10, 2016
Vulpes - Latin for fox. Old French goupil derives from the Latin, but the popularity of Le Roman De Renart and the bad augur of actually naming the 'verminous' creature meant that renard became used, first as a euphemism, and then as the standard term for fox. Reynard, associated with Reinhard, which comes from old German Regin - counsel and hart - strong, thus someone who is resourceful, quick-witted, clever. The English word fox is similar to the German Fuchs, which apparently corresponds to the Proto-Indo-European word puk, meaning tail.

The Irish word for fox is sionnach, and it is believed that the word shenanigans could come from Irish sionnachuighim - I play the fox.

The collective term is a skulk of foxes. Rarely used I imagine, they don't go around in gangs.

Wily old fox: for centuries Reynard has been associated with cunning and trickery. The mediaeval Bestiaries relate that the fox ensnares its unwary prey by pretending to be dead. It rolls in red mud to simulate blood and waits, immobile, eyes closed, for the birds to come and peck at it.

To outfox someone. To get the better of them, to second-guess what trick is planned and out-trick the trickster. Fairy tales are replete with these themes, of a predator dragging away the beautiful, innocent girl, only to find himself deceived by her fast thinking: Fitcher's Bird for example, the version of Bluebeard that Margaret Atwood references in her short story Bluebeard's Egg, or The Robber Bridegroom which is very similar to the English Fairy Tale Mr. Fox, a direct antecedent of Oyeyemi's work.

So, another re-imagining of myth and fairy tale, done already by so many, Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories as well as the incomparable Ms Atwood - it takes chutzpah to believe there is something fresh to say. But Oyeyemi has both: chutzpah and something fresh to say. This is utterly delightful: playfully sizzling along with bluffs and double-bluffs, tricks and shenanigans. The war between men and women re-conceived as a game of our perceptions of the 'other' and how we try to impose them on real sentient beings who might have a mind of their own, and a story of their own, and a tale they insist on telling. It's a whole series of mind-bending trickery, fantastic Mr Fox indeed. And the magical thing about Oyeyemi's writing is how she draws you in to each new character in each new story, close enough to see the finest lines and feel the heart beat, and yet at the same time never lets you forget that this is just a game we're playing - the Foxes (three of them in this marriage, a little crowded, as a famous princess once said) with each other, and with the reader. Po-mo that is FUN. Not some miserable guy staring at his navel and despairing of being able to write anything valuable in an age when the value has leached out of symbols, demonstrating how meaningless language is by writing meaningless language. No, no, no. Fun, playful, sprightly, joyous.

My own little story of mistakenly thinking I was outwitting the trickster in our family:
Some years ago a group of four of us had planned a trip to Estonia, taking advantage of one of the cheap flights that had become available. The first leg of our journey was by train to Cologne, and from there to the Cologne-Bonn airport. Near the time that our train was due, one drew up at the platform with its destination marked at the front and on the side of each coach: Rheine.
Now it must be pointed out that Cologne is to the south of where we live and Rheine is way way north.
"That's not our train. (Is it?)"
My husband: "Yes it is."
The other three: "Yeah, yeah, sure." "Ha ha" "The other one has bells on it" And other remarks of that ilk, you get the picture.
My husband: "It is our train." - but, and I do believe this is crucial, he did not move. By this time the other three of us were in gales of laughter, oh, yeah, that's a good one, you don't fool us that easily, hahaha.
The train pulled away, and that is when we did have our doubts, because it was now past the time when our train was due. And in fact, when we checked the yellowing departures poster, we found that my dear husband was quite right, and the train we had been aiming for was the Rhein-Münsterland Express, which describes a bizarre route:
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Profile Image for Paul.
1,217 reviews1,963 followers
February 13, 2016
This is a delightful and quirky play with a variety of myths and tropes. Primarily the Bluebeard myth; which is, as the Guardian review reminds us is “the usual – wooing, seduction, then – the discovery of a chopped-up predecessor". There is a fairy tale element running through; the main antagonist is writer St John Fox (Reynard the Fox runs through fairy tales going back for centuries).
The novel is set in the 1930s and St John Fox is a novelist whose novels usually end in the main female character dying horribly. In the trenches in the first war he dreamt up a muse, Mary Foxe. This muse has begun to take substance and has begun to critique his writing and tries to push him into writing a different way. Then there is Fox’s longsuffering wife Daphne. Fox has his approach to her thought out;
“I fixed her early. I told her in heartfelt tones that one of the reasons I love her is because she never complains. So now of course she doesn't dare complain.”
Fox is an unpleasant character, but we do hear the voices of the two women in his life as well and interspersed are stories of a very varied nature; fables metafictions, impressions with nods to Poe, Dickinson and traditional fairy tales. All these combine to take a closer look at relations between men and women. Some are very funny; Madame Silentio’s academy which turns the finishing school idea on its head by taking “delinquent ruffians” and turning them into “world class husbands”. An eccentric curriculum includes:
“Strong Handshakes, Silence, Rudimentary Car Mechanics, How to Mow the Lawn, Explosive Displays of Authority, Sport and Nutrition Against Impotence”.
As Mary Foxe, the muse becomes ever more real, she also becomes more independent and strikes up a friendship with Daphne, encouraging Daphne to try writing. The tables are gradually turning and Oyeyemi in an interview about her book recalls Muriel Spark’s quote;
“She wasn’t a person to whom things happen. She did all the happenings”.
She is also very clear about why she is exploring the Bluebeard story;
“Women are constantly being killed by their husbands, lovers, brothers, and fathers—it’s reported every day, and in a way, the frequency of the reporting normalizes the murders. Terror and anger and helplessness come when I think of all that goes unreported, either because it’s not known to the media or because it isn’t quite murder yet. When I first started writing Mr. Fox I was interested in something that’s coded into the way these stories are reported: the ever-present potential for violence that seems to lurk within the love men have for women. Is it real? If so, how can we survive it? Can the violence be overcome once and for all, or is it something that dies down and has to be renegotiated every time it flares back up again?”
Oyeyemi fulfils her purpose using magic realism and magic tales set firmly within a real landscape interwoven with stories to illustrate the points she has to make. This isn’t linear and the whole is a little like finding your way through a maze. It’s well written and funny, in a serious sort of way and Oyeyemi makes her points with a lightness of touch and with great perception. This is well worth reading.

Profile Image for Nandakishore Mridula.
1,255 reviews2,298 followers
October 30, 2019
Statutory Warning: If you like your stories served up in the traditional way with a beginning, middle and end, and with characters behaving like rational human beings in conventional settings, then Helen Oyeyemi is definitely not for you.

Mr. St John Fox, the writer, has an unusual visitor one day - the beautiful Mary Foxe. What makes her unusual is that she exists only in his head.

Mary Foxe took birth in Mr. Fox's head in the trenches of The Great War (actually, World War I - but the novel is set in 1938, so World War II is still in the future, though the rumblings are heard). Functioning as muse and saviour, she prevented him from going mad and committing suicide. But now she has taken on flesh and blood form with a specific mission: to prevent him from subjecting his female protagonists to gruesome deaths in his stories. According to Mary, St John is a "serial killer".

To achieve her objective, Mary challenges her creator to a strange contest - that of role-playing his stories; just the two of them, to see whether anything can be changed. What follows is a potpourri of stories, a kaleidoscope of shifting narratives, as we move in and out of various stories: interspersed with which is John's own story, and that of his wife Daphne, and their marriage which is almost on the rocks. And the ending is satisfyingly fairy-tale like.


Helen Oyeyemi, a British Nigerian, follows the traditional storytelling style of her culture - with tale upon tale, merging and fusing into one another seamlessly (I was reminded of Ben Okri, though her style is more transparent). She wrong-foots the reader constantly. If you try to decipher the meaning or logic of what she is trying to say, most likely you will be frustrated, and won't enjoy the book. The trick is just to let go and enjoy the story for itself: imagine yourself at a campfire, while the bard of the tribe is regaling you with his latest epic.

That does not mean that these stories are shallow: far from it. The name "Fox" itself is a dead giveaway. This is the trickster from myriad folk-tales - the wily jackal from the Indian Panchatantra, the coyote of the Native Americans, Reynard the Fox from Irish Folklore: the curious shapeshifter, hero, villain and jester depending on the context. He/ she fulfills much the same role here on these pages.

The tortured relationship between the sexes is the core theme. The author confesses that she has been inspired by the tale of Bluebeard, the ultimate female fantasy of the murderous husband who marries and kills off young women and hoards their decapitated heads. However, the monstrous male has been partially emasculated in these tales - he is a victim of the circumstances as much as the woman is - but it does not absolve him of uxoricide. By playing down the horrific and stressing the weirdness, Oyeyemi forces us to look at the whole issue through fresh lenses.

This is absolutely what the doctor ordered for the reader who likes to challenge herself.
Profile Image for Pippi Bluestocking.
77 reviews11 followers
May 9, 2016
I never liked crime fiction. I read from a variety of genres, I even read lots of trashy books too, but I think there isn't one who-dunnit I can like. There are a few reasons for this (one is that I usually figure out the culprit, but I'll shut up 'cause now I'm sounding like a git) but the most important one is that crime fiction trivialises human life in a way I cannot sympathise with. No one cares about the person who died or the people left behind; we only care about solving a puzzle, satisfying a perverse need to combine the macabre with the ingenious. And guess what: the victims are usually female.

Oyeyemi hits the nail with this book, giving voice to my annoyance with this hedonistic treatment of dead women, not only in crime fiction but throughout literature. Byronic heroines do literaly little else than dying all the time. Writers, poets, have been women-murderers for centuries, but does it really matter? It's a book, it's all lies after all. "Well," Miss Foxe, the rebellious muse of the book, says, "it does matter". Inspired by the English version of Bluebeard, a fairytale called Mister Fox, she chases the author of dead women, Mr Fox, through a series of oneiric landscapes in which real and fictional blend together, in which selves multiply into dozens of different lives - some of them lived, some of them only dreamt of. But really, what makes the lived more important than the dreamt of?...

We think that we die once, physically, but truth is that death is something that happens to us all the time, throughout the course of our lives. If imaginary women keep getting killed, real, flesh-and-blood women cannot find a way to imagine themselves as subjects, but only as non-subjects, as the Other, as the one that is and should be, well, you know, dead (insert Lacanian quote/reference here). 'Literature' in Mr Fox speaks for a larger kind of death women and other Others, Non-subjects in the modern Symbolic have to suffer. The kind of death they experience again and again, every single day, from the moment they are born.
Profile Image for Sentimental Surrealist.
294 reviews48 followers
August 1, 2016
Question for discussion: is Mr. Fox in fact a meta-romance novel, an attempt by Oyeyemi to make herself the Ursula K. Le Guin of that most beleagured of genres? Or is it in fact a meta-fairy tale with deep feminist implications that happens to use romance as the ground for its conflict, between a writer (Mr. Fox), his fictional muse (Mary Foxe), his concrete wife (Daphne Fox), and the author of Desperate Characters and several beloved children's novels (Paula Fox, who doesn't actually appear in this book)? Well, why not let it be both? I certainly get why the likes of Nicholas Sparks are derided by the literary canon, but let us first draw a line between "romance as a genre" and "books about the idea of romance," and yes okay I'm only doing this because you're supposed to feel self-conscious about romance novels as a genre, but romance or not, this is really fucking good.

See, Oyeyemi kind of reinvents the possibilities of metafiction here, or at least offers us a way forward now that the likes of Barth and Barthelme, whose great-author status I will never question, have left the literary limelight. We've heard for years about how metafiction needed a more human face, or at minimum something to pull it into a less abstract and more impractical realm. Well, I don't think it needs that necessarily, since stories that are "just" about stories aren't really just about stories (we tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion tells us, and let me add that we should therefore think pretty hard about those stories) but ways of thinking, yet Oyeyemi's feminist angle is pretty welcome here.

The premise, if you haven't read it: St. John Fox, the Mr. Fox of the title, is a writer who can't stop killing women in his stories. He always comes up with an excuse, of course, but the attentive reader will notice parallels between his interactions with Daphne and the deaths of these fictional women, so maaaaaybe he's got some unspoken issues with women. Mary Foxe, his fictional muse whom he eventually wills into the real world, takes objection to this, and the two chase each other through St. John Fox's fictional universes, Mary trying to get St. John to realize the consequences of his actions, St. John trying to defend himself. And when Daphne finds out about Mary, all hell breaks loose.

The Mary-Daphne-St John portions are quite entertaining; Oyeyemi's nonstop witty banter is utterly unrealistic, of course. Nobody on planet Earth can come up with quips and counter-quips that quickly. Still, it's all kinds of fun to read, and it keeps the book moving along at a fleet-footed pace while at the same time keeping it out of the dread Soap Opera Territory. But for me, the real highlights are the fairy-tale segments. You get a sense of Oyeyemi's range as a writer, as these pieces are a little bit horror, a little bit social realism, a little bit satire. And not to give too much away, but they have a fascinating and complex and ever-evolving relationships with the Mary-Daphne-St John portions. Yeah, it's one of those books that invites readers to ask "what is this book's reality?" and I am all about that sort of book.

Plus obviously the feminist aspect comes through strong. I am also all about that sort of book. Women die left and right in fiction, and usually for no other reason than to reinforce gender roles and norms, and no, it isn't "just harmless because it's just fiction," it's reflective of the fact that misogyny is still alive and well in today's society. This book gives you a sense of the stakes there, and it weaves its strong politics into a lively and compelling and convention-smashing novel with some beautiful, beautiful prose. What else am I gonna give it but five stars?
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,125 followers
January 30, 2019
This novel proved to me the importance of sticking with a book longer than its first few pages. The metafictional whimsy of the first 50+ pages grated on me...and then all at once the book soared. Many times I feel that metafiction becomes cold and pointless, too self-aware for it to have greater purpose than to point back to the author's cleverness, so I tend to be on my guard when I begin a book that uses these elements. Oyeyemi's novel masterfully achieves what the best metafiction can do, though: It breaks the easy sentimental fictional dream that lulls readers into believing what they're reading is real, when it isn't; and then--this is the tricky part--it replaces the typical dream-fiction-sentimentality with something that feels genuine and real. So this is a bit of a meta-essay about this meta-fiction where I'm talking in generalities rather than specifics but it will have to do. The only authors I've felt have pulled this same trick off before in my reading experience--the trick of using metafiction to come closer to human experience, rather than distancing the reader from it--are Nabokov and Donald Barthelme.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
542 reviews38 followers
January 8, 2022
Book Description

Considering that I’m still not really sure exactly what was going on, writing this summary shall be a challenge. Let’s see … as best as I can tell, the story is about a writer (Mr. Fox) who is married to a woman named Daphne but is having an affair of sorts with his muse (Mary Foxe), who is slowly taking corporeal form in the real world. But when I tell you that this story is not told in a straightforward way, trust me on that

My Thoughts

The story of this love triangle is told in a series of short stories, vignettes, fairy tales, letters, and narratives by the three characters and jumbled together in a blender of sorts so that the reader must be on the very tip-top of their game to keep it all straight. It was very A Visit from a Goon Squad-ish but even more confusing. Stories would abruptly end and one of the characters would start talking and half the time I wouldn’t know what was going on.

For instance, there would be a story about Mary Foxe, and I’d be completely unsure if she was a character in a story written by Mr. Fox, one she made up herself, or just a character in the bigger story being told by Helen Oyeyemi. Then characters would appear in fantastical fairy tale-like stories and then show up later as real people in the real world. Getting all this straight was really difficult, and I’m not actually sure I did keep it straight.

To be 100% honest, my main reaction to the book was “WTF??” I found myself thinking this over and over again throughout the book. And when I got to the very end, I remember thinking to myself: “Your entire review should just be WTF?!” As a service to you, I’m struggling to provide a bit more information.

The writing itself isn’t bad. I found myself getting sucked into the various stories that Oyeyemi was telling via Mr. Fox or Mary Foxe or Daphne, but I just couldn’t connect the puzzle pieces together in a satisfying way. Now this could definitely be my fault as a reader. I read this book at night before going to bed, and I realize now this isn’t a book to be read for relaxation or when tired. It requires a bit more commitment from the reader.

In the end, I just didn’t have it in me to go back and try to make the book fit together for me. In fact, I had to go back to Zibilee’s review to get a better understanding of what was going on.

One last thing, this had the most awful ending I’ve read in a book in a long time. I just HATED IT. But at least the book was over.

Recommended For

Readers up for a challenging read, fans of the fractured storytelling form a la A Visit from the Goon Squad. (And hey, if you read this book and “get” it, can you explain it to me?)
Profile Image for Ellie.
1,493 reviews378 followers
December 27, 2011
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi - the opening at least is very confusing but at the same time hilarious with lots of lovely prose. As I settled into it and recognized the flights of fantasy, I was less confused but still delighted by the fairy tale aspect and the general story-telling.

A favorite quote (there are too many to share a complete list!): "All around them people were speaking a language Brown didn't understand; it was like silence with sharp edges in it."

So many beautiful sentences, beautiful phrases. Lovely stories, bits and pieces of magic. And the power and games of relationships, "power...the knowing and the telling."

The complexity of the relationships: not just between the characters but amongst the stories, the characters and the characters they themselves create. Once settled into the author's world, it is both like being told bedtime stories and challenged to examine the nature of the world, people, imagination, and art itself.
Profile Image for Amanda.
840 reviews343 followers
August 9, 2016
I don't really know what happened here, but I enjoyed every bit of it. This is more of a short story collection with a linking narrative. I really loved some of the short stories. Not sure if this makes me want to read more from Oyeyemi, but I will enjoy rereading this!
Profile Image for Cher.
818 reviews281 followers
November 17, 2014
1.5 stars - I didn't like it.

DNF'd at 40%. This is a very unusual and unconventional story, but unfortunately in this case, the strangeness hampered the novel rather than making it wonderfully unique. It is about a man that is having a mental affair with his fictional muse, which is having significant effects on his life in reality. There are also interspersed short stories of fiction the man and muse collaborate on, which are interwoven into the "real life" reality and fictional (mental b/t the author and muse) segments. The end result was a disjointed mess that prevented me from ever feeling invested in the story or the characters.

Favorite Quote: N/A.

First Sentence: Mary Foxe came by the other day—the last person on earth I was expecting to see.
Profile Image for CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian.
1,155 reviews1,463 followers
October 2, 2020
A dreamy, fairy tale-like novel about love, stories, and foxes. I love Helen Oyeyem's writing. It's like her words are as familiar as the fairy tales you heard as a kid while at the same time as fresh and unique as anything you've ever read.

Mr Fox is an author, married to a woman named Daphne and whose muse is an imaginary woman named Mary. Mary goes after Mr Fox for the needless women's deaths in his stories, by telling her own. She becomes real. She meets Daphne, who worries her husband has been taken away. Interspersed are fairy tales, strange and wonderful.

If you like (feminist) fairy tale retellings, especially if you're interested in the Bluebeard story, definitely check this out!
Profile Image for Katie Lumsden.
Author 2 books2,950 followers
April 21, 2018
I really enjoyed this. It's a strange and twisting story, but Oyeyemi's writing is clear and precise and the premise very interesting. There were a few stories that I thought didn't fit into the book as well as others, but the majority were great.
Profile Image for Kirstine.
459 reviews569 followers
August 28, 2016
"'I stood up and went to the window. When I got close to her she looked down at her watering can. "Mrs. Fox," I said. "You're a horror today." To which she replied, "Why don't you write a book about it?'"

This is the story of, well, Mr. Fox. And Mr.Fox has one major failing: he can't stop killing all his female characters. Of course, this is a failing many people (men, really) share with him, but most of them make it through life perfectly fine, never thinking this particular indulgence of theirs might be a problem. They don't have a muse out to get them, though. Because Mary Foxe, the muse of Mr. Fox, has absolutely had it with the killings. So she materialises and tells him to do better, when it turns out Mr. Fox is more interested in flirting and a lot less interested in changing his ways, she resorts to other means. She brings him into the world he thought he'd mastered and shows him how utterly mistaken he is.

She brings him into fiction, into the world of stories, and slowly rewrites what he thinks he knows.

This is both a feminist commentary on a historical (and still relevant and harmful) trend. Mary Foxe brings Mr. Fox, and Helen Oyeyemi brings the reader, into various stories of many genres. We find ourselves in letters, in regular fiction, in folktales, all mixed up. At first it seems almost a cliché, as if Mary hasn't quite worked out how to let go of the things Mr. Fox has written, and the tropes he's stuck to, but as she finds her feet, and discovers an identity outside of Mr. Fox, the stories evolve. They become more splendid, more complicated, and evermore freeing.

All the while Daphne, the wife of Mr. Fox, becomes suspicious of his behavior and soon finds herself caught in their web as well.

This is a novel of self-discovery, of the power of fiction (obviously), and breaking free of the idea that all you are is the character in the story of someone else. Mr. Fox learns the dear lesson that the women in his life are very much their own individuals, with their own free will, and that this will might very well work against him.

It's a witty book, sharp as a knife and utterly delightful. It's also a novel that, like Mary Foxe, has absolutely fucking had it with dumb men and authors who think fiction doesn't matter. Oyeyemi keeps her story and her characters close to cliches, but they never cross over, they're also only on the edge of it. She uses them to outsmart and outwit the cliche, she uses them to show us the originality that can grow from a liberated mind - a mind that isn't afraid to take well known, harmful tropes and use them against themselves.

And it's a novel full of love. Love to the art of writing, and love of love itself. Of the complicated relationships between people (and muses come to life). And how we must learn to accept the other as someone unknown to us, someone free from us, but also a someone who might choose us over others.

There is no real villain, except perhaps the stories that rise from ignorance, and can only be combated with understanding and enlightenment.

This book is such a delight.
Profile Image for branewurms.
138 reviews39 followers
August 1, 2011
I don't know, I don't know, I don't knowwwww. The more deeply a book touches me, the less I know how to say anything about it. My reaction to this book is kind of like how I feel when I look at the moon; I'm full of all these senseless impulses, I want to eat it, I want to breathe it. It should be cool and bright in my mouth. Every word is luminous and strange and wonderful. I want everyone in the world to read it and love it like I do and talk about it so I can consume all their thoughts, too.

I know this tells you absolutely nothing about what this book was about. How am I supposed to convince people to read it? I just don't even know how to talk about it. It was a novel, and it was also a collection of short stories, and it was about a lot of things like love and creativity and muses and Bluebeard and the nastiness (and laziness) of the tradition of killing off heroines for dramatic impact. It was also wonderful, and you should all read it and talk about it so I can eat your thoughts.

Incidentally I almost wish I had waited for the US hardcover to come out and gotten that edition, because although the Picador edition is made of what looks and feels like high-quality materials, it's designed somewhat poorly so you have to almost wrestle the book open and pin it down to read it, and now there's all this wear on my copy when I'm usually really gentle on books. I don't really mind when this happens with a really cheap paperback, but this wasn't cheap. But if I had waited, I wouldn't have been able to read it for another whole two months, and that would have been TERRIBLE. What if I died tomorrow? Then I would have lived my whole life never having read this book. Horrors!
Profile Image for Kerri.
988 reviews368 followers
December 25, 2021
🦊Helen Oyeyemi is an author that I've wanting to read for a few years now. I had a feeling I would like her books, and this feels like a promising start. It was strange and hypnotic and completely wonderful. I mostly read this at night for an hour or two before bed (sometimes longer) and I found myself looking forward to it throughout the day. It follows a writer, Mr. Fox, who has a habit of brutally killing all the female characters in his stories. His imagined muse, Mary Foxe comes to life and insists he is a murderer.

“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 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 obscene to make such things reasonable.”

We move from Mr. Fox's stories, to his life, where his real-life wife Daphne suspects he is having an affair. He finds himself torn between the two woman and it's all confusing and yet makes sense
and I adored every page. I will be reading more of Helen Oyeyemi's work very soon.
Profile Image for Abbie | ab_reads.
603 reviews447 followers
October 5, 2020
This was only my second foray into the weird and wonderful mind of Oyeyemi, but I enjoyed it thoroughly! I know she polarises readers, but so far both White is For Witching and Mr Fox have been great reading experiences. Mr Fox isn't quite as dark as White is For Witching, although it does have a main character who can't seem to stop killing his fictional wives...
The premise is that an author St. John Fox's fictional muse comes to life, intent on making him change his murdering ways. None of his fictional heroines ever make it out of his stories alive, and Mary Foxe is intent on putting a stop to the carnage. It doesn't take long for St John's wife Daphne to become suspicious, and he must choose a path. It's a creative mash-up of featuring retold fairytales (including the obvious Bluebeard), folklore, Yoruba traditions and myth. Even if you're not familiar with the original story being turned on its head, it's still so much fun to read on its own!
I thought the creativity within this book was absolutely delightful! There's the main storyline with Mary, St John and Daphne running through, and then through lots of off-shoot stories we get a peek inside St John's fiction. But the lines between fiction and reality blur; characters weave in and out of real life and stories. It gets a little murky if you're not concentrating, but overall the effect is gleefully playful.
Oyeyemi herself said in an interview with BookForum that she considers Mr Fox one of her 'games'. In her own words she said she thinks these books are 'useless and not contributing anything', but because of that 'desire to be happy and desire to play', they feel more like her own and they are the ones she loves most. I think Oyeyemi's passion for writing this book definitely shines through, and it contributed to a brilliant reading experience for this reader!
I'm really looking forward to reading my way through the rest of Oyeyemi's books, her imagination is extraordinary!
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 111 books62 followers
September 30, 2013
Easy to read/hard to define/wonderful/full of wonder throughout. I've written a few fix-ups (sometimes called mosaic novels) in my time. It's a trick I love to play and at first I thought this was one: a dozen or two short stories written on a common theme and strung together.

But no, Mr. Fox is all original work and a far deeper riff, a series of variations on a theme of "Mr. Fox" the English folk tale that is itself a variation of the story the French call "Bluebeard" and the Germans "Fitcher's Bird". Foxes, real and polymorphous, run in and out of it.

We return periodically to a writer, his wife and Mary Fox, a real enough muse/mistress he has invented/imagined. It's set in 1930's New York, in England, in a Paris reached from China by taxi, at a school in Europe where boys are taught how to become the husbands of fantastically rich and complicated women.

Some sections are short and sweet, some are long and generous. Each time one thinks one understands where it's taking you, one is wrong. Instead of being maddening this is hypnotic.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,189 reviews1,687 followers
December 29, 2013
Just when I think there’s little new under the sun, along comes Helen Oyeyemi and shatters all my perceptions about how a story can be narrated. This young, brave, gifted Nigerian-born British writer is a modern day Scheherazade, weaving her tales in the form of a most unconventional love triangle: St. John Fox, a “serial killer” writer (the women in his books always die), a muse (or is she?) named Mary Foxe, and his wife Daphne.

The book is loosely based on the legend of Bluebeard – a feared and shunned nobleman who murdered multiple wives after they enter his forbidden room. His last wife-to-be is able to escape her fate.

In Helen Oyeyemi’s book, the misogynous Mr. Fox is confronted by Mary Foxe and delivered a challenge: to join in on her game to engage in competition, to avoid pat endings and to create a story that breaks the mold that he’s become all too comfortable with.

The stories are at first slightly self-conscious and increasingly become richer and richer as the characters (Mr. Fox, Mary Foxe and Daphne) begin to connect in surprising ways, across time periods and genres.

In fact, this book is hard to pigeonhole. Certainly, it is imaginative. It is also timeless: the tales amply leverage the romance and violence that are part and parcel of the best of our historic fairy tales. Mr. Fox, for example, bridges the gap with legendary foxes such as the seductive Reynardine and in one unforgettable story, becomes a fox of folklore, trying to escape his fox-like nature.

The stories themselves are marvelous: a young woman with violence in her past who meets a widower who challenges her ability to trust, a highly unusual prep school for perfect husbands…each tale is a joy onto itself. The themes within the stories have a lot to say about the creative process, the challenges of mature loving, the echoes of post traumatic stress disorder, the discovery and acceptance of one’s true nature, the agony and ecstasy of taking creative and personal chances.

As Helen Oyeyemi leads us from absorbent fantasy to hints of the truth of Mr. Fox’s struggling marriage and need for creative release, reality and fantasy often flirt with each other and sometimes even collide. Brava, Ms. Oyeyemi, for such an inventive and alluring book!
Profile Image for Sarah.
536 reviews
June 13, 2013
I don't know.

I love Helen Oyeyemi's voice, but I kinda feel like she was trying to do too much with this. I couldn't find the basic outline. I couldn't keep track of who represented what!

Mary, for instance, is said to be Mr. Fox's muse/creation...but I just couldn't see that. I don't think she quite works on that level. To me, the character works solely as a representation of the invalidated female voice: not a muse, not Mr. Fox's creation at all.--Or is that the whole point?--And Mrs. Fox could've been so much more developed.--Again, maybe that's the point!--But all the projection, introjection, splitting, and merging got to feel a bit...convoluted. Once lost, there was no place to regain one's footing.--And maybe that's the point,--but I can't help but agree with those who think this would've worked better as a short story collection. It would've given the book some definition.

Sorry, Emilie!

Maybe I'll give this another try someday...
Seems like the sort of book that would benefit from a rereading!
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews158k followers
November 1, 2016
Oyeyemi’s books are always kind of strange but filled with interesting ideas, and this is no exception. The main character, a writer named Mr. Fox, has been writing stories in which the women always die. Mary Foxe, an imaginary woman he made up as a sort of guide and muse, is now challenging him to do better. The two begin to write stories to each other, and although Mr. Fox does not immediately change his ways, the stories get deeper and more complex as the two writers, one real and one not, collaborate. It becomes even more complicated when Mr. Fox’s wife, Daphne, gets involved.

–Teresa Preston

from The Best Books We Read In September 2016: http://bookriot.com/2016/10/03/riot-r...
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