When Helen Oyeyemi’s first novel, The Icarus Girl, hit shelves back in 2006, it was clear the Nigerian-born, Cambridge-educated author was a literary force to follow—not the least because she was only 20 years old at the time. Now, five years and four books later, she again proves herself a compelling writer capable of both vast creativity and intellectual heft.
Mr. Fox, Oyeyemi’s newest offering, is—most simply—the story of St. John Fox, a 1930s American novelist with a penchant for killing off his female characters. Bored by his meek wife, Daphne, St. John creates an imaginary muse-cum-mistress, Mary Foxe, to serve his creative and erotic needs. What he doesn’t count on, however, is that his invented lady-friend will turn against him, challenging his work and his marriage, not to mention the many problems of a patriarchal canon.
When Mary gets wind of her Pygmalion’s anti-feminist antics, she invites him to join her in a series of stories of their own making. She reinvents herself as an unpublished and wide-eyed fellow novelist, a florist’s assistant with a hankering for fairy-tale endings and a modern-day woman in love with her psychiatrist.
Additionally, Oyeyemi interweaves both Western- and African-inspired fables and folk tales into the dream-like yarns: In one story, two students at a finishing school for marriageable men discover a chained prisoner at the bottom of a teacher’s lake, while in another, a decapitated bride refuses to give her suitor her head. These themes of matrimonial violence are prevalent throughout, each of them a nod to classic “Bluebeard” or “Robber Bridegroom” tales (which match foolish wives against murderous husbands).
Such allusions within allusions make Mr. Fox endlessly fascinating and also endlessly impenetrable. The plot (to the extent that there is one) twists and turns, and readers can never be sure what’s real and what’s a figment of St. John’s imagination. Still, one gets the sense that such patchwork moralizing and, indeed, humor was Oyeyemi’s goal.