For those familiar with the French folktale “Bluebeard,” especially in its various versions such as the British “Mr. Fox” and “Fitcher’s Bird,” Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr. Fox will delight. Even if you are not familiar with these other versions, you get them in this novel. You only need to love fairy tale convolutions, especially when blended with real-life situations.
In the original story, Bluebeard kills off his wives, while warning each one not to go into a certain room and yet leaving the key behind while he’s away. In the room, of course, are the other wives, brutally killed and dismembered. In an interview, Oyeyemi talks about the strange attractive repulsion felt for the wife killer in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. That story is about fidelity and committing to someone, and how that can be a horror story in and of itself as sort of a lifelong bond. But “Bluebeard” is different, especially in the British version “Mr. Fox,” where the English heroine, Lady Mary, confronts Mr. Fox with what’s in his house, and they have a battle of words. She strips him of his power with her words.
The power of words is certainly shown in this novel in the beautiful writing (“The next day’s noon came like a blazing hoop, and the sun spat razor blades through it”), and especially in the book’s very moving end. This story is a love triangle—Mr. Fox is a writer who loves both Mary Foxe, his imagined muse and fellow writer, and his wife Daphne, and the two women love him. The ramification of this love, strong even though one woman is imaginary, is shown in the various stories told throughout the novel, sometimes linked with recurring names and characters being transformed. We start with Mary visiting Mr. Fox and complaining of his killing off all the women in his stories. Later she spells her wishes out: “‘Your wife loves you. Turn to her. Properly. Stop fobbing her off and being a counterfeit companion. It would be good, if, after all this, just once you wrote something where people come together instead of falling apart. Just show me you can do it and I’ll leave you alone.’”
But when Mary visits Mr. Fox first, she challenges him to write less violently or else she will step in. So we have stories, written by one or the other, and even correspondence back and forth where she tries to get him to read her stories—to dire consequences for the manuscripts. This is a playful book in which imagination jumbles up stories and leads them to turn this way and that. The reader trying to find a clear structure in the novel will be stymied. Instead he must get absorbed in the stories, the way first readers of fairy tales do. There is some development in the course of the book in that finally Mary and Daphne meet, but even after the resolution of the triangle, there are two fox stories which are the most moving parts of the book, and illustrate the opposite ways love can go.
And when talking of love, the book is very real, as fairy tales tend to be:
I told him that I loved him. I’ve never ever said that to him before, because I just didn’t know how he’d take it. I love you. I mouthed the words because there didn’t seem any point in interrupting him just then. I don’t believe it’s the sort of thing a woman can tell a man more than say, three times in their life together. It’s only really appropriate in the event of a life-threatening emergency. ‘I love you.’ It means a different thing to us than it means to them. God knows what it means to them. God knows what it means to us.
The only problem with the novel is the possible frustration from its nonlinear progression. Also, though the stories are absorbing, they are not remembered because of how complicated they become. The author does seem to be making the point about the danger of love and that in imaginative fiction, never trust what you read as absolute reality. It may change in the next story. In this she has gone beyond the Bluebeard tale:
Miss Foxe’s other passion was fairy tales. She loved the transformations in them. Everybody was in disguise, or on their way to becoming something else. And all are overcome by order in the end. Love could not prevail if the order of the tale didn’t wish it, and neither could hatred, nor grief, nor cunning.
As Oyeyemi says through Mary Foxe: “Here is the truth about everything.”