Reading The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson

And this is a review from Vector in 2000


Kij Johnson – The Fox Woman
(Tor, 2000)

To the Japanese, the fox is a subtle creature, a shape-shifter, an illusionist whose magic is the stuff of deception. In the fox’s world, nothing is ever quite as it seems. The world of the Japanese court is equally subtle, with a wealth of meaning made manifest in the manner of a gesture or the colour of a robe. Having inadvertently fallen from favour at court, Yoshifuji has returned to his neglected country estate to ponder his future. He is fascinated by the foxes who live in the garden, and  who seem to represent the freedom which is missing from his own life, rigidly governed as it was by the protocols of court and city. But Yoshifuji’s wife, Shikujo, fears the countryside, the foxes in particular, and their effect on her husband, whose erratic behaviour is becoming ever more incomprehensible to her. Meanwhile, one of the foxes, a young female called Kitsune, is equally fascinated by the humans who have unexpectedly invaded her domain and falls in love with Yoshifuji. Determined to possess him, she begins to study what it means to be human, performing the fox’s mysterious magic in order to have that which she most desires.

In some respects, The Fox Woman embodies the classic British tale of the town mouse and the country mouse, each unhappy in the other’s chosen milieu, but there is much more to the story than this. Instead, one might more reasonably think of Kitsune as embodying that part of themselves that Yoshifuji and Shikujo cannot otherwise express, each of them in their own way longing to break free of the well-regulated but stultifying life of the city. Kitsune, in trying to become like them, finds her own animal spirit almost crushed by the literal weight of appearing human, of remembering what is appropriate at every moment, unable to give vent to her own authentic feelings for Yoshifuji. The tragedy of Yoshifuji and Shikujo is one of conformity, that neither can truly express their feelings to the other, although each is lonely and unhappy. It takes the intrusion of Kitsune into their lives, and her efforts to understand human happiness,  to make them understand what it is they fear, and to realise what it is they truly want even while the illusion of Kitsune’s fox-magic points up the sham nature of their own lives.

Kij Johnson’s debut novel explores a mythological tradition which will be unknown to many readers, although we know of the fox as a cunning and resourceful character in British folk tales. She uses unfamiliar characters and narrative expectations to give fresh impetus to old themes,  and in doing so produces a novel which is very compelling. Although seemingly slow-moving at times, mimicking the stultifying pace of Yoshifuji and Shijuko’s lives, The Fox Woman repays patient reading; after a while, you will find yourself swept into this strange half-world where nothing is quite what it seems, but where each word, every description, is delicately calculated to achieve just the right effect, where you do genuinely care about what happens to these desperately confused people and where the bitter-sweet ending seems perfectly judged.

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