From a prizewinning young writer, a brilliant and inventive story of love, lies, and inspiration.
Fairy-tale romances end with a wedding, and the fairy tales don't get complicated. In this book, the celebrated writer Mr. Fox can't stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It's not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently.
Mary challenges Mr. Fox to join her in stories of their own devising; and in different times and places, the two of them seek each other, find each other, thwart each other, and try to stay together, even when the roles they inhabit seem to forbid it. Their adventures twist the fairy tale into nine variations, exploding and teasing conventions of genre and romance, and each iteration explores the fears that come with accepting a lifelong bond. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox's game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?
The extraordinarily gifted Helen Oyeyemi has written a love story like no other. Mr. Fox is a magical book, endlessly inventive, as witty and charming as it is profound in its truths about how we learn to be with one another.
Mary Foxe came by the other day—the last person on earth I was expecting to see. I’d have tidied up if I’d known she was coming. I’d have combed my hair. I’d have shaved. At least I was wearing a suit; I strive for a sense of professionalism. I was sitting in my study, writing badly, just making words on the page, waiting for something good to come through, some sentence I could keep. It was taking longer that day than it usually did, but I didn’t mind. The windows were open. I was sort of listening to something by Glazunov; there’s a symphony of his you can’t listen to with the windows closed, you just can’t. Well, I guess you could, but you’d get agitated and run at the walls. Maybe that’s just me.
My wife was upstairs. Looking at magazines or painting or something, who knows what Daphne does. Hobbies. The symphony in my study was as loud as it could be, but that was nothing new, and she’s never complained about all the noise. She 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.
Anyway, I’d left the study door open, and Mary slipped in. Without looking up, I smiled gently and murmured, “Hello, honey . . .” I thought she was Daphne. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and Daphne was the only other person in the house, as far as I was aware. When she didn’t answer, I looked up.
Mary Foxe approached my desk with her hand stuck out. She wanted to shake hands. Shake hands! My long-absent muse saunters in for a handshake—I threw my telephone at her. I snatched it off the desk and the socket spat out the wire that connected it to the wall and I hurled the thing. She dodged it neatly. The phone landed on the ﬂoor beside my wastepaper can and jangled for a few seconds. I guess it was a halfhearted throw.
“Your temper,” Mary said.
“What’s it been—six, seven years?” I asked.
She drew up a chair from a corner of the room, picked up my globe, and sat opposite me, spinning oceans around and around on her lap. I watched her and I couldn’t think straight. It’s the way she moves, the way she looks at you. I guess her English accent helps, too.
“Seven years,” she agreed. Then she asked me how I’d been. Real casual, like she already knew how I’d answer.
“Same as always—in love with you, Mary,” I told her. I wished to hell I wouldn’t keep telling her that. I don’t think it’s even true. But whenever she’s around I feel as if I should
give it a try. I mean, it would be interesting if she believed me.
“Really?” she asked.
“Really. You’re the only girl for me.”
“The only girl for you,” she said, and laughed at the ceiling.
“Go ahead and laugh—hurt my feelings . . . what do you care,” I said mournfully, enjoying myself.
“Oh, your feelings . . . well. Let’s go further in, Mr. Fox. Would you love me if I were your husband and you were my wife?”
“This is dumb.”
“Would you, though?”
“Well, yes, I could see that working out.”
“Would you love me if . . . we were both men?”
“Uh . . . I guess so.”
“If we were both women?”
“If I were a witch?”
“You’re enchanting enough as it is.”
“If you were my mother?”
“No more,” I said. “I’m crazy about you, okay?”
“Oh, you don’t love me,” Mary said. She undid the collar of her dress and bared her neck. “You love that,” she said. She unbuttoned further and cupped her breasts. She pushed her skirt up past the knees, past the thighs, higher, and we both looked at her smoothness, her softness, her lace frills. “You love that,” she said.
“This is all you love,” she said, pulling her own hair, slapping her own face. If it wasn’t for the serenity in her eyes I would’ve thought she’d lost her mind. I stood up, to stop her, but the second I did, she stopped of her own accord.
“I don’t want you like this. You have to change,” she said.
The symphony ended, and I went to the Victrola and started it up again.
“I have to change? You mean you want to hear me say I love you for your”—I allowed myself to smirk—“soul?”
“It’s nothing to do with that. You simply have to change. You’re a villain.”
I waited a moment, to see if she was serious and whether she had anything to add. She was, and she didn’t. She stared at me—really came on with the frost, like she hated me. I whistled.
“A villain, you say. Is that so? I’m at church nearly every Sunday, Mary. I slip beggars change. I pay my taxes. And every Christmas I send a check to my mother’s favourite charity. Where’s the villainy in that? Nowhere, that’s where.”
My study door was still open, and I began listening out for my wife. Mary rearranged her clothes so that she looked respectable. There was a brief but heavy silence, which Mary broke by saying, “You kill women. You’re a serial killer. Can you grasp that?”
Of all the—
I hadn’t seen that one coming.
She walked up to my desk and picked up one of my notepads, read a few lines to herself. “Can you tell me why it’s necessary for Roberta to saw off a hand and a foot and bleed to death at the church altar?” She ﬂipped through a couple more pages. “Especially given that this other story ends with Louise falling to the ground riddled with bullets, the mountain rebels having mistaken her for her traitorous brother. And 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? From a door handle? Really, Mr. Fox?”
I found myself grinning—the complete opposite of what I wanted my face to do. Scornful and stern, I told my face. Scornful and stern. Not sheepish . . .
“You have no sense of humour, Mary,” I said.
“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t.”
I tried again: “It’s ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of ﬁction. It’s not real. I mean, come on. It’s all just a lot of games.”
Mary twirled a strand of hair around her ﬁnger. “Oh . . . how does it go . . . We dream, it is good we are dreaming. It would hurt us, were we awake. But since it is playing, kill us. And—we are playing—shriek . . .”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“What would you do for me?” she asked.
I studied her, and she seemed perfectly serious. She was making an offer.
“Slay a dragon. Ten dragons. Anything,” I said.
She smiled. “I’m glad you’re playing along. It’s a good sign.”
“It is? Okay. By the way, what exactly is it we’re talking about?”
“Just be ﬂexible,” she said. I seemed to have accepted some challenge. Only I had no idea what it was.
“I’ll keep that in mind. When do we start this thing?”
She drew closer. “Presently. Scared?”
The crazy thing is, I actually did have the jitters, just a little. Suddenly her hand was on my neck. The gesture was tender, which, coming from her, worried me even more. My hand covered hers—I was trying, I think, to get free.
“Ready?” she said. “Now—”
Dr. Lustucru’s wife was not particularly talkative. But he beheaded her anyway, thinking to himself that he could replace her head when he wished for her to speak.
How long had the Doc been crazy? I don’t know. Quite some time, I guess. Don’t worry. He was only a general practitioner.
The beheading was done as cleanly as possible, and briskly tidied up. Afterwards Lustucru set both head and body aside in a bare room that the couple had hoped to use as a nursery. Then he went about his daily business as usual.
The Doc’s wife had been a good woman, so her body remained intact and she did not give off a smell of decay.
After a week or so old Lustucru got around to thinking that he missed his wife. No one to warm his slippers, etc. In the nursery he replaced his wife’s head, but of course it wouldn’t stay on just like that. He reached for a suture kit. No need. The body put its hands up and held the head on at the neck. The wife’s eyes blinked and the wife’s mouth spoke: “Do you think there will be another war? After the widespread damage of the Great War, it is very unlikely. Do you think there will be another war? After the widespread damage of the Great War, it is very unlikely. Do you think . . .” And so on.
Disturbed by this, the doctor tried to remove his wife’s head again. But the body was having none of it and hung on pretty grimly. What a mess. He was forced to leave her there, locked in the nursery, asking and answering the same question over and over again.
The next night she broke a window and escaped.
Lustucru then understood that he’d been bad to the woman. He lay awake long nights, dreading her return. What got him the most was the idea that her vengeance would be fast, that he would be suddenly dead without a moment in which to understand. With that in mind, he prepared no verbal defences of his behavior. Eventually his dread reached a peak he could live on. In fact, it came to sustain him, and it cured him of his craziness, a problem he hadn’t even known he’d had. After several months there was no sign of his horror beyond a heartbeat that was slightly faster than normal. His whole life, old Lustucru readied himself to hear from his wife again, to answer to her. But he never did.
Hey . . . What’s going on here?” I asked. We’d changed positions. I was in a chair, sprawled across it, as if I’d fallen. I assumed we were still in my study—I couldn’t say for sure, because Mary’s hands were pressed ﬁ rmly over my eyelids.
She didn’t answer.
“What’s going on?” I asked again.
“I’d rather you didn’t look at me just now,” she said.
“Are you all right?”
“What do you think? After what you did, you—you great oaf.”
“Are you saying that that was us? Actually us? Me and you? The doctor and his lady wife?”
She was curt. “Yes, yes. I just need a couple of minutes, if that isn’t too much trouble.”
I whistled “I Can’t Get Started” until what she was saying sank in. That’s my go-to tune, my haven during many a mindless hour. I experimented with the length of the notes, drawing a couple of bars out here, rushing over a couple of bars there, fast, slow, fast, fast, slow, slow, slow. The tremor in Mary’s hands told me she was laughing silently. That was reassuring. I broke off halfway through the third rendition to ask if I could look at her yet.
“No, better not—”
She didn’t need to tell me it was bad. Put it this way— she was close, right in front of me, but her voice was coming from another direction entirely, from my far left.
“Listen—how did we get—I mean, how did that happen? How did we do that? How is that even possible? For us to do that together?”
“It’s all very technical,” she said haughtily. “You couldn’t possibly understand.”
“This isn’t a good time, I’m afraid.”
I missed her hands when she took them away. “Don’t look—I mean it,” she warned. A moment passed, I heard a clicking sound, and she gave a ragged gasp. I kept my eyes closed.
“Mary—that’s just the way the story went. I didn’t know that was us. Maybe if you’d explained beforehand—”
“Oh, you knew. Of course you did.” Her voice was thin. “But never mind. Serves me right for letting you go ﬁrst. The next move is mine, and I assure you, you’re not going to like it.”"A sly, tender, and elegant novel, graced with a magical charm that makes its wisdom about love and loss all the more captivating to read. Mr. Fox is a novel for those who love stories and who believe in their singular power to alter and heal our fragile souls."
-Dinaw Mengestu, author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air
"A wonderfully original novel, full of images and turns of phrase so arresting, so vivid and inventive, its pages almost glow with them. Helen Oyeyemi has given us a work of playful charm and serious narrative pleasure."
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