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While stale fairytale retellings continue to litter the genre, along comes Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox, a book that takes the Mr Fox tale and runs in an entirely unexpected direction.

For those who do not know, the basic tale goes as follows:

A woman marries a man, who gives her the key to every room in his house – but tells her that she must never enter one room. Well, tales being predictable, she enters the room, and there she finds the bodies of Mr Fox’s previous wives. She confronts her husband, breaking the cycle of murdered wives.

In Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox, the bodies are the heroines of his fiction; the central woman is not his wife (although she becomes more important as the book develops) but his muse, Mary Foxe.

Why yes, this is a book that treats the systematic victimisation and murder of women in fiction as a serious thing. Be still, my beating heart.

Mary Foxe shows up one day while Mr Fox is trying to write, telling him that he’s a villain and a murderer and he must change. They then engage in a bout of storytelling, which takes up much of the novel, interspersed with the developments in Mr Fox’s relationships with Mary Foxe and Daphne Fox (his wife).

Oyeyemi has a playful sense of humour, which rears its head throughout the book. Take this, from the beginning of a story:

There was a Yoruba woman and there was an Englishman, and…
That might sound like the beginning of a joke, but those two were seriously in love.

She also has a sharp bite:

[Daphne] doesn’t complain about anything I do; she is physically unable to. That’s because 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.

Mary Foxe has a lot of work to do.

It is not quite as straightforward as Mary (and Daphne) making Mr Fox see the error of his ways and become a shining paragon of manhood. However, by the end I do believe he has changed: he has come to see women as something more than wives and narrative devices. The stories told throughout the book become increasingly complex; it becomes more difficult to say which is Mr Fox’s and which is Mary’s.

Although Mr Fox is the initial viewpoint character in the non-story parts, Mary and Daphne gain their own voices too – the book is about all three of them. Daphne is, after all, not just the wife; Mary’s role ultimately seems to be a muse for both Mr Fox and Daphne (although for a while I was worried that Mary intended to steal Mr Fox from Daphne). The scenes between the three of them are a bit on the sparse side, although with the stories charting the turbulent emotional territory it is not an entirely rushed affair; I would have liked a bit more of the women’s viewpoints, though.

The stories are a lively variety – and they also serve to reinforce the fact that women, not men, are at the heart of this book.

Fittingly, the women are a diverse bunch. There’s Mary, outgoing and confident, and Daphne, dappy and passionate and intelligent in a different way. In one story, a woman and her daughter live in an occupied town; while the daughter brazenly stands up to the soldiers, the woman is faced with the choice of shunning a kind soldier or being killed by her own people. (Incidentally, their story is a sharp look at the effects of occupation and “nice” soldiers on women.) In another, a girl removes her heart to make her life easier to bear. And so on. Throughout Mr Fox, women are faced with difficult lives and react in a multitude of ways – it is a bold statement of determination and diversity.

(I wasn’t so keen on the story in which Mary is a young writer hoping to receive feedback from Mr Fox. I suppose this was a role-reversal story, but it sat uneasily with me.)

A few minor issues didn’t stop me from loving this book. Mr Fox is chewy and delicious; I strongly recommend it to readers who like their folktale-variants clever and their women multifarious.