Mr Fox, By Helen Oyeyemi

Marianne Brace
Friday 17 June 2011 00:00
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In Helen Oyeyemi's playful new novel, a character complains: "With books you've got to know all about other books that are like the one you're talking about, and it's just never-ending, and it's a pain." Indeed. A novel partly about the creative act of writing, Mr Fox includes a string of literary name-checks from Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Cappelanus's 12th-century treatise De Amore to The Hound of the Baskervilles and Madame Bovary.

At its core is a love triangle between St John Fox (a novelist in 1930s America), his wife, Daphne, and his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe, with whom he flirts. Fox is on to his third marriage, displays violent tendencies and seems to agree with Poe's line that "nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman". None of his heroines gets out alive. That, according to Mary, makes him a serial killer. Fox remonstrates that fiction is "just a lot of games". But his muse is not amused.

So the two start an elaborate game of their own, "fooling around with stories" and placing themselves within them. Mary, endlessly reinvented, becomes a British would-be writer employed by rich New Yorkers; a Dream-Mary who lives in an attic; a fairy tale-loving florist; a young model in love with a psychiatrist; a flesh-and-blood rival to Daphne, who bonds with her over hats.

Into this fast-talking battle of the sexes Oyeyemi weaves fairy tales (the Grimms' "Fitcher's Bird"), myth (the were-fox Reynardine) and the ancestral dead of Yoruba folklore, while keeping the homicidal bridegroom Bluebeard as her key image. Chapters connect loosely rather than as a single organic narrative. And Oyeyemi enjoys subverting things: a decapitated wife won't surrender her head; a woman hopes to be transformed into a beautiful princess when her suitor beheads her but, "That is not what happened', deadpans the author.

There are many states of existence – real, imagined, dream, fugue. However, there's only one end and that's death, of which there's plenty in the novel . As well as beheading, women bleed to death, are hanged, shot, chopped up, run over, stabbed.

Yet Mr Fox is far from morbid. The dialogue zips along and Oyeyemi reveals a twinkling sense of humour. ("Someone you made up turns around and tells you they believe in you – what response could you possibly make?"). Her images are striking too – dead lovers waltz in their vault; people flying kites are "small figures ... their wrists and fists leashed to the bright creatures in the sky"; leather burns with "a harsh sound like someone trying to hold back a cry between their teeth".

Lovers of metafiction, magic realism and all things fabulist will find Oyeyemi's energetic imagination a delight. However, anyone preferring a more linear approach may feel in need of a ball of string to find their way through.

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