You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


  When  I finished Helen Oyeyemi's novel, I immediately turned back to the opening chapter. It wasn't that I had so enjoyed it that I planned to read the whole thing over. I was just trying, although it had been only a matter of a couple of days, to remember how on earth this thing had begun.

In the first chapter, Mr. St. John Fox, who despite his highflown name appears to be the successful author of violent potboilers, receives a visit from Mary Foxe. When he hears her come in, he assumes at first it must be his wife Daphne, a woman we will learn later spends much of her time in her room, depressed and suicidal. Mr. Fox has not seen Mary for six or seven years. He tells her he loves her. They have a brief, odd conversation which ends when Mary says, "You don't love me. You love that." She bares her breasts, lifts her dress up over her crotch, pulls her hair, and slaps herself on the face.

How could I have forgotten such an opening? In my defense I can only say that a lot happens in Oyeyemi's brief novel. In the next pages, Mary appears as an importunate fan and fledgling writer vying for Mr. Fox's attention in an exchange of letters dated 1936. There is another narrative thread involving Mr. Fox and Daphne. There are interpolated stories, apparently the work of Mr. Fox, although a couple may be Mary's and some may appear just for effect. And Mary, by the way, is not a real human being. She is Mr. Fox's muse, a constant cause of Daphne's jealousy, at least until they get to know one another toward the end of the novel.

Novel is probably not the right word here. This is imaginative writing of a very high order, with intertwined themes that may appear as either moments in the characters' lives or the plot lines of additional stories. Animals and spirits interact with the characters in fanciful if dangerous ways. World War One is a memory for some of the characters and World War Two is approaching. Mr. Fox either loves or is obsessed with Mary, and even though he treats her badly he loves his wife as well. Or he thinks he does, He may just be worried he might lose her. I believe her suicide only occurs in one of the "fictional" narratives.

This is not a book for readers fond of narrative closure. You can check out other reader reviews for confirmation. I am with those who wonder just what all this adds up to and what exactly has happened by the end of the story. But Helen Oyeyemi writes a kind of fiction where we have to assume that whatever happens on the page, happens.

(Looking over this review, I think I was overwhelmed by this book. For a more thoughtful, intelligent review, look here )