St John Fox is torn between two women. Plenty of stories have been built around the same premise but few love triangles feature an imaginary woman.
Oyeymi’s middle-aged writer Fox has recently been visited by his own creation Mary Foxe: and she’s not happy to see him. Admonishing Fox for his tendency to kill off his female characters in violent, inherently misogynistic ways, she proposes a challenge. In a series of stories, each battles to change the others mind and determine their futures.
Based loosely around variations of the Bluebeard tale, Oyeyemi weaves stories around stories. This format can sometimes be confusing, as St John and Mary’s narratives are placed haphazardly in around chapters following their own interactions in the ‘real’ world. Oyeyemi doesn’t attribute her stories to a character, leaving readers to puzzle out which character contributed a story.
Things get complicated further when these chapters give way to the opinions of St John’s suffering wife Daphne who slowly realises her competition for her husband’s affections is not a flesh and blood rival but one who resides is in his own head. With al this too-ing and fro-ing, it’s hard to gain a foothold on the three main characters personalities with their layers of subterfuge and alternate identities.
The mini stories themselves are quite entertaining, The Training at Madame de Silentio’s is a stand-out gothic tale of a school that prepares young men to be the perfect husband but there’s also plenty of magic and whimsical touches in Like This. But not all of the stories are as well placed as each other.
A particularly jarring moment occurs in What Happens Next a story that seems to be set much later than the 1930s melodrama of the main plot. Its descriptions of commercial aeroplane flights, first class and watching in-flight films twists the reader’s previous understanding of time and place in the book and inevitably leads to questioning the reliability of the narrative as a whole. If the point of the chapter was to suggest just that, it might be forgivable but as this inconsistency is glossed over, it’s hard to understand why Oyeyemi’s chose to include this story in the narrative. Similarly the chapter My Daughter the Racist (originally shortlisted for the BBC short story award in 2010), although well written and interesting, feels like it’s been squeezed into the plot.
What began as a solid idea unravels as the book continues. All in all, Mr Fox is a confusing piece, somewhere between a novel and a short story anthology. Oyeyemi has a natural, enjoyable writing style but the fluid nature of the stories and at times their tenuous links to the main plot leave the reader unsatisfied and waiting for answers.