I’m sitting in a bar right now, laptop open, Jane’s Addiction stomping through my ears, thinking I should take advantage of this little slice of me-time to write a book review. There is a big pile of books for me to review at home, but The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson is insisting that it be the one. In fact, I can’t even remember what the other ones are (with one exception, but I have ambitions for that review – I hope to discuss the changing landscape of the publishing world and embracing the digital age, a review that requires research, facts, and perhaps even an interview with the author. Facts are hard.)
I mentioned The Fox Woman a while back; after reading for an hour I went to sleep and the world of the book filled my dreams all night. That’s some pretty potent imagery at work.
Note: Kij is a friend of mine. My unavoidable bias is reflected in the fact that I would not post a review of her work if I didn’t like it. I liked The Fox Woman.
It’s not a complicated story, really, though it seems desperately difficult to the characters involved. Two women love the same man. One of the women is a fox, and for her love is simple and all-consuming, an animal interpretation of love, and she is willing to take human form (and bring her entire family along) to get what she wants. The man’s wife is a sophisticated noblewoman of the Japanese court, bound by tradition and honor, forced to limit her expressions of love to poetry (on carefully-chosen paper) passed to her husband by servants.
The wife fears the foxes living on their estate. She knows well the enchantments they are capable of.
Two women love the same man, and each has an entirely different world to offer him. The fox woman’s world is an enchantment, a world built with magic, tailored to be perfect for her lover. The man’s wife offers a precocious son, and a life of wealth and ease. She could offer him so much more, if she could find a way to tell him.
The man, for his part, is restless. He loves his wife, and wishes there were a way he could express it to her. They communicate through poetry, but what should be the language of lovers has become shrouded in imagery, obscured behind metaphor. Both long to say “Meet me by the pond and let’s rut like crazed weasels in heat,” but it’s hard to make a proper poem (one that will withstand the dictates of propriety) on that theme.
Our fox woman, Kitsune, longs to understand poetry, but it is her ignorance of the artifice that is her greatest strength. She is a fox and foxes just don’t think that way. Not, at least, without a lot of suffering first.
There is a time when everyone but Kitsune knows that her magical world is crumbling, that it cannot last. We all aware as readers that a crisis is coming, and I found myself getting impatient for the shit to hit the fan. I had foreboding, but I think a specific building threat would have given the coming events a vector; rather than “this can’t last” I would have been thinking “holy crap when the priest gets there anything can happen.”
Even as the crisis unfolds, however, we have few clues about the outcome. In this magical, spiritual world, suffering seems certain and death is possible, even for the main characters. What does it say that I entertained the idea that a first-person narrator might die during the story? To answer my own rhetorical question, it says that the writer had me all the way.
I felt the pain, I felt the love. The story meanders, but then again so do I. It’s a good read.
I don’t want to give anything away, but the end was perfect for me. I closed the book and stayed in that world for a while, thinking past what Kij gave me, satisfied but not glutted.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.