December 21, 2012

Book Review: Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

I've been reading a lot of straight up horror/sci-fi/action lately. I'm used to being assaulted by rough language, dark images, murders, ghosts.

Diving into Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, a dense, rich collection of short stories that intertwine to create an exquisitely crafted novel, was like reading-therapy for me. Gone was the fear, the crude, replaced by language dripping with beauty, with elegance, with grace.

This is not my normal kind of book.

But it came at a time when I needed it, and I enjoyed it very much.

Mr. Fox
By Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead Trade Paperbacks
November 16, 2012
So. Imagine this. You're a writer, and a long time ago you created a "muse" for yourself, a gorgeous woman who poses as your imaginary spouse when you're alone, and you love her with your whole being. Because, well, you created her, and as such you made her perfect.

Do you follow?

Now imagine that you've grown. You've married. You love your wife, but not like you love your muse, since now matter how great your wife is, she can't stand up to the perfection of your own creation. You're still writing, and your stories invariably include tales of beautiful women meeting terrible, violent deaths.

It sort of makes people edgy, these deaths, and maybe it should stop...but you don't know how to write anything else.

And then your muse comes to life, and tells you stories of powerful women not meeting these terrible ends. Of alternate realities in which you can be with her if only you are different. If only you are better. 

Incidentally, she also points out how sort of fabulous your flesh-and-blood wife actually is...no matter how much she drives you mad.

And you listen and learn, while outside your office door your real-life wife grows ever more suspicious of the voices she hears within.

If you're still with me, if you're still along for this wild, luxorious ride, then you have the basic idea behind Mr. Fox.

Each chapter is its own short story. Sometimes the characters are obviously related to the over-arching storyline; sometimes they are not. Sometimes I scratched my head in confusion, wondering how it was all connected, but I was always able to lose myself in the individual stories long enough to get back to find out how the puzzle piece fits the bigger image.

It's a rangey book plot, rambling and wandering, but I like that. I've heard this book compared to the writings of David Mitchell, which I haven't read myself...but hearing my husband talk about Cloud, Atlas and its loosely linked stories as I was reading Mr. Fox....I get the connection.

The book is complex, dense with talk of violence against women, and women overcoming. Thriving. It's incredibly powerful. The stories range around the world, including my favorite: a tale of a woman in an American-occupied Islamic country whose daughter befriends a young American soldier. They learn from each other, enough to understand each other, but the village intervenes, threatening violence agains the woman and her daughter if she doesn't chase the soldier away.

She chases the soldier away.

Sometimes you have to do things you're ashamed of in order to keep your child safe.

It's a sad lesson, but an interesting one.

And did I mention the language? The writing? Gah! It's gorgeous!! Oyeyemi writes paragraphs like this, my favorite: 

And, laughing a little, he kissed me back. He kissed me like ice cream, like a jazz waltz, the rough, gentle way the sea washed sand off my skin on the hottest day of the year. And the whole time there was that little laugh between us, sweet and silly.

Don't you want to be kissed like that?

I do. And were I to read that paragraph everyday for the rest of my life, and I would be a satisfied reader.

Well done, Ms. Oyeyemi. It's a beautiful world you've created, and I enjoyed inhabiting it for a little while.

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