At its core, Helen Oyeyemi's fourth novel, Mr. Fox, is a series of linked stories penned by the book's protagonist, a 1930s-era English writer named St. John Fox. Fox is locked in a love triangle with his wife, Daphne, and an imaginary muse named Mary Foxe. Mary comes to life in many of the 10 stories that Mr. Fox creates, but she also comes off the page to haunt, help and entertain both Daphne and Mr. Fox in their everyday lives, which, thanks to Mary, aren't so everyday. Oyeyemi dares us to wonder what exactly Mary is: an author's inspiration or something more complex — a charming combination of ghost, conscience, marriage counselor and heroine.
Mr. Fox is named for the wife-killer in the English folk tale "Mr. Fox," a variant of the Bluebeard story. Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox has a habit of killing women, too, but only fictional women. Mary, named after the heroine in the folk tale "Mr. Fox" who is brave enough to confront her antagonist, wants to change him. She prompts Mr. Fox to write a number of inventive and charming stories that riff on fairy tales but also stand powerfully on their own.
The women in Mr. Fox's stories often come out on top — or nearly on top, since Oyeyemi's world is full of trap doors. For instance, in a retelling of "Fitcher's Bird," another Bluebeard-like fairy tale, Mary's lover beheads her, but only because she asks him to, believing the act will turn her into a princess. "That is not what happened," Oyeyemi wryly concludes, as reality and fantasy masterfully collide.
Similarly, in "Like This," a Yoruban woman is reunited with her lover in the tombs of Pere Lachaise by a "freelance" medium named Reynardine (another villainous fox of folklore). Reynardine demands that she write stories about the Yoruban people, and her "reward" for doing so is eternal bliss with her lover — never mind that this eternal bliss occurs inside a tomb.
Oyeyemi, a Nigerian-born Londoner still in her 20s, has long proven that she can write about anything, but the most touching tales in Mr. Fox involve characters Oyeyemi can no doubt identify with: two young, cosmopolitan women navigating work and love. One is a ladies' companion and budding writer in 1930s Manhattan; the other lives in present-day London and struggles in love as she is haunted by the murder of her mother by her father. Oyeyemi lingers the longest with these two characters, both of whom are enamored with an older gentleman named Mr. Fox (lest we forget that Mr. Fox is the "real" author of these tales). Lonely, but bright and charming, these women don't escape the magical realism that Oyeyemi is so fond of — one of them is saved from suicide by a ghost — but they do allow us to more deeply explore love and some of the many emotions that come with it: infatuation, fear and jealousy.
In Oyeyemi's prismatic and dark books, including her award-winning third novel White is for Witching, it's common to find spectral figures like Mary Foxe — who charm, trick and manipulate characters and readers — and ample elements of folklore, fairy tales and religion. Within that body of work, Mr. Fox is the most fun. Oyeyemi has a tireless imagination and doesn't stay put for long. It can feel like a jolt when she intermittently detours out of Mr. Fox's world of stories and returns us to his and Daphne's struggling marriage. But it's a testament to the strength of Oyeyemi's concept and its brilliant execution that, like Mr. Fox, we much prefer to escape into his inner life than to confront his reality. Through him, Oyeyemi exuberantly opens doors into other realms, minds and eras — and uncovers beautiful truths at every twisted turn.