A playful look at love, literature and Bluebeard, Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, Mr. Fox, is nonetheless a serious piece of fiction. The tone is lighthearted, but beneath the veneer of arch teasing between novelist Mr. Fox, his muse, Mary Foxe, and his unhappy wife, Daphne, lies a nuanced examination of how we manage our expectations of life and love.Unhappy with Mr. Fox’s insistence on killing the heroines of his tales in unlikely and gruesome ways, Mary returns after a seven-year absence to convince him to change. “Must Mrs. McGuire hang herself from a door handle because she’s so afraid of what Mr. McGuire will do when he gets home and finds out that she’s burnt dinner?” Mary asks exasperatedly at the novel’s start. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game of switched identities, gender reversals and a girls’ night out between Mary and Daphne.
Reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s plays on genre but far less pretentious, Mr. Fox recasts the triangle at its center over and over again, in different stories and with different emphases. Mr. Fox thinks he loves Mary, while Daphne still loves Mr. Fox, despite his neglect. And Mary, with her British accent and wry smile, may or may not love Mr. Fox but has a decided love for literature. Oyeyemi wrings infinite variations out of these three and their dreams, most of them tender and achingly sad, before snapping back to the real trio, all of whom lean toward the tart.
Oyeyemi’s restrained writing, grounded by a dry Britishness, keeps the narrative from flying off the tracks. By the time the imaginary Mary and Daphne have gotten tipsy together at dinner and an abandoned lighthouse comes into play, Oyeyemi and her characters have earned the occasional far-flung flight of fancy. Call it crazy like Mr. Fox.
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