Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi's newest novel dazzles with an inventive narrative format and playful prose. It opens with a famous author, St. John Fox, sitting in his study in 1937, "sort of listening to something by Glazunov; there's a symphony of his you can't listen to with the windows closed, you just can't. Well, I guess you could, but you'd get agitated and run at the walls. Maybe that's just me. My wife was upstairs. Looking at magazines or painting or something, who knows what Daphne does. Hobbies." Anyway, Mary Foxe drops by to visit Mr. Fox. She is a character he has created and she is pissed off that St. John keeps killing off the women in his books, so she challenges him to a game. They take turns going into each other's stories and Mary's goal is to make St. John change his wicked ways.

I enjoyed Oyeyemi's riffing on the Blue Beard fairy tale. She is especially interested in why a husband would kill his wife. Some of the stories incorporate more elements of magic realism than others. Several of these stories draw on Oyeyemi's Yoruba background. At the writersfest in Vancouver, Oyeyemi said that although she was born in Nigeria, she doesn't feel a particular attachment to that country, only to the Yoruba people. She grew up in England, immersed in western mythology as well as traditional Yoruba stories.

It is her way with words that is especially delightful, so I'll quote a few bits. When Mary lay in a dead woman's bed and couldn't sleep, "Minutes pricked shallowly, like thorns."

In a tale of an adopted child: "The woman insisted on being called mother. (Which the boy called her, but with a secret hiss that came from a place inside him that he did not understand - inside his head, her name became motherhhhhhhh, smothered myrrh.)"

St. John Fox says of public libraries that they " always make me feel covered in ink. Ink on my clothes, ink in my eyes. Terrible. All the body heat in there is bound to make the pages mushy."

It's lots of fun. Readers might also like read and compare the original tales that inspired Oyeyemi.  Joseph Jacobs' version from English Fairy Tales is here and Charles Perrault's Blue Beard is here.

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