Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr.Fox , the Male Gaze and the seduction of Magic Realism

It’s been a while since I fell in love with a book like this,  Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr.Fox is one   of those rare books that pull you in and won’t let you go till you’re  done. A note of caution though, it is not ‘light reading’ and makes you do some work, but it is definitely worth it in the end.

Mr.Fox in many ways is a fairytale for grown-ups or more correctly it reveals the power of such tales in defining the boundaries of our realities . Oyeyemi’s narrative follows the genre of magic realism, which simply put is a style of writing that “integrates elements of fantasy into otherwise realistic settings”[1]. Magic realism uses the other worldly, supernatural and spiritual realm to tell everyday stories of love, war and family. It is mostly associated with Latin American writers such as Isabella Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami (although he is not Latin American). If you’ve ever read anything by these authors you will know that the rich supernatural style of story telling creates an extremely engrossed fictional world, you are trapped in its small enchanted world and sort of forget what reality really is.

Oyeyemi uses the same technique but the result is very different. She creates a fluid narrative that isn’t restricted to any one place. Weaving the supernatural into the central storyline Oyeyemi takes us across the world– from the U.S to the African continent and back. The story revolves around an unconventional love triangle between Mr.Fox, a famous writer, his wife Daphne Fox and his imaginary muse and lover Mary Foxe. Oyeyemi uses this central love triangle to re-work well known (European) folk-talks tales from a different perspective.

What really struck me is the way in which she uses a fable like style of writing to introduce larger themes of gendered bodies, intersectionality or  multi-cultural identities. This fairy-tale tone works of two levels. As a reader it takes you on an easy ride, you let your guard down and without even realising you are confronted with some tough themes and issues. Like Mary Foxe, whose complex character is a metaphor for the way in which women’s lives, bodies and even imaginaries are constructed by others. Mary, who starts of as a figment of Fox’s imagination is constructed through his male gaze[2], she exists solely for him, as his muse. Through the course of the book though, Mary comes to life and recasts herself in her own gaze. She is trying to break out of the her controlled existence and build a life for herself. It is a subtle way of dramatising the feminist critique of the social construction of gender and the restrictions that a  patriarchal society places on both the male and female sex.

On another level, Mr.Fox is a beautiful re-working and critique of the ‘Bluebeard’ folktales. Bluebeard is the story of an aristocrat that repeatedly marries and murders his wives and the attempts of one wife to escape this fate. In the earlier versions of this story, the anonymous wife is saved by her brothers but in Oyeyemi’s adaptation(and in many other feminist revisions by Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton etc)  Mary and multiple other heroines try to save themselves.

I was also surprised by how much was packed into this book. There are other individual but connected adaptations of folk tales scattered inbetween the narrative. Like the English folk tale of the ‘werefox’ (yes like a werewolf by a fox…) Reynardine, who is an mysterious character that grants wishes, seduces and then kills women. Or the story about a fox that falls in love with a woman and unlearns his fox ways and painfully learns to be human – a story that reminded me of both Mowgli in the Jungle Book and Ariel’s transformation into a human  in Little Mermaid.

I love the way in which the wider themes are weaved into the narrative rather than being the obvious premise.  The focus is always the people and their emotions, which are universal but the context is specific but in the background. I feel like this is the kind of writing that we need from writers of colour – writing that provides a new perspective without idealising or solidifying their own ‘difference’ or Otherness.

You will like this book if you liked reading: 

 Isabella Allende

Gabriel García Márquez

Haruki Murakami

Angela Carter

[1] http://www.britannica.com/art/magic-realism

[2] Laura Mulvey in Visual and Other Pleasures (1989) builds a critique of media representation of women in Hollywood and the way in which women and their bodies are constructed for the viewing pleasure of men, thereby denying pleasure for women.



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