May 7, 2009

The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson

This is the gift of humanity: that it is claimed by the self. None of us—Shikujo or Yoshifuji or my grandfather or myself or my brother or my woman, Josei—are human unless and until we claim it for ourselves. But nothing can stop that claiming—not the eight million gods nor the spirits nor ghosts. Nothing but ourselves, anyway.
Set in Old Japan, The Fox Woman tells the story of Kaya no Yoshifuji, a nobleman, Shikujo, his wife, and Kitsune, the young fox who comes to love him and uses fox magic to become a woman. When Yoshifuji is not appointed for the position at court he was hoping to get, he leaves the capital in disgrace and returns to the country home where he and his wife lived early in their marriage. Yoshifuji spends his time brooding, and slowly he becomes obsessed with watching a pair of young foxes play in the garden. And the foxes watch him back. His wife Shikujo realizes what is happening with unease–she has reasons of her own to fear the foxes deeply.

The story is told from three alternating points of view: Yoshifuji’s, Shikujo’s and Kitsune’s. This gives the reader access to how each of these characters perceives the world, and also to how they are perceived by others. As expectations, silences and misunderstandings are at the core of what this story is about, this was the perfect approach.

I had high expectations for The Fox Woman - I loved Fudoki and all the short fiction by Kij Johnson I’ve read so far. I had high expectations, and still they were surpassed. Don’t you love it when that happens? Like Fudoki, The Fox Woman deals with what it means to be a woman and to be restrained by convention, what it means to be a person and be burdened by expectations – other people’s as well as our own. In addition to gender and identity, it deals with longing and disappointment and communication and the boundary between animal and human. All in a beautifully told story infused with Japanese myth.

Yoshifuji and Shikujo’s marriage has seen better days. Though they still connect on a sexual level, they no longer talk about matters that should be talked about. Yoshifuji perceives his wife as perfect, and this makes him feel inadequate and distant from her. And Shikujo always behaves properly, which means swallowing every word and emotion that doesn’t fit into pre-established moulds. As she well knows, and as Kitsune comes to realize, a woman’s life is “shadows and waiting”. Though the conventions that bind us today are of different kinds, it isn't in the least difficult to relate to these characters. Most of us have an idea of what it feels like to behave “appropriately”, to swallow anger and sadness and regret, and by doing so sacrificing spontaneity and true communication.

The Fox Woman is very much about gender, and I really liked the fact that it showed how these rigidly defined roles affected both men and women. There is no doubt whatsoever that men had the privilege, the freedom, the upper hand. But in the end, a system that disallows honest communication will not benefit any of the parts involved. Yoshifuji has freedom and power, but he is lonely and miserable. And though it’s easy to be angry at him for some of the decisions he makes, I found it impossible not to sympathize with his unhappiness, his disappointment, his longing, his desire to communicate and his inability to do so. It's not a trivial thing, and not really something that can be dismissed as self-pity. And my heart broke for him as he came to realize that he loved his two possibly lives, but could never live them both.

The Fox Woman is so full of longing: between Yoshifuji and Shikujo, between Kitsune and Yoshifuji, between Shikujo and—well, I won’t tell you that part. And it’s a longing that is and is not sexual at the same time. There’s passion and there’s desire, but there’s also the fact that these characters sometimes mistake a whole other feeling for romantic longing: their search for an identity, for a meaning, for the gift of humanity. Kitsune, for example, is trapped between animal and human: she is neither and she is both. What she comes to realize, however, is that even those who have been human all along are as confused as she is.

And this brings me to why the ending is perfect: it’s an open ending, but then again it isn’t. The love story (or stories) is not resolved. But the identity issues are, and that’s an important thing. That needs to come first, and true intimacy is not possible without it.

Two final things: the writing, as in everything Kij Johnson does, is absolutely stunning. And I just loved the setting, the elements from Japanese folklore, the magic. They created such a perfect mood. I realize these are awkward comparison, but because my references in this area are limited, theee are all I have: it’s a mood somewhat similar to that of Neil Gaiman’s Dream Hunters or to the Studio Ghibli movies Spirited Away or Pom Poko. There’s something about it that really appeals to me. And most of all I loved how well this mood fit the emotional tone of the story.

Some of my favourite passages:
Words, words, words. There were no words then, just sensations: smell, sight, experience, day and night, as flat and complex as a brocade held too close to the eyes for focus, or a rainstorm full in the face. All details, no pattern. I have words now, maybe too many. I try to describe the fabric to you, but words will not make you wet, or shelter you from the rain.

I suddenly want her, this woman who is my wife. I forget sometimes that she is a real person, not some pretty artefact in my life. I do not know what she thinks of me from day to day, but I suspect it is something similar. I am like a colored thread worked into a brocade: one part of the pattern of her life, generally noticed only has a part of the whole. But sometimes she noticed, or I notice, the single thread again, and wonder at the color or the fineness, the uniqueness of it. We meet each other’s eyes and remember: There is a soul on the other side of those eyes.

Nothing in my life has prepared me for this. I have always been the center of things in my life: my wife, my servants, my world. But there are other worlds, completely alien to me, and here, caught between my floor and the earth, in air clogged with another presence, I am not even irrelevant: I am other.

I feel strangely free at such times. To behave properly is to be always courteous, always clever and subtle and elegant. But now, when I am so alone, I do not have to be any of these things. For this moment, I am wholly myself, unshaped by the needs of others, by their dreams or expectations or sensibilities.
But I am also lonely. With no one to shape me, who stands here, watching the moon, or the stars, or the clouds? I feel insubstantial, as if the wind might suddenly dissolve me, like a weak mist.

Women never see anything directly. Our—this word has always fit uncomfortable, even now: can a fox woman be counted as a woman?—our worlds are dim-lit and fragmented, seen in snatches through a gap in a curtain, or even a fan, or through our hair, or around a sleeve. Obliquely, from the corners of our eyes. No doubt this is men see women, as well: as muted color and form in the dark recesses of a room.

The ink runs and blurs; when I try to read it later, I do not know if the words I think I see are real, or remembered, or even false memories created by my mind to fill the forgotten gaps. I remember being unhappy, but I remember being happy, as well, and neither seems more (or less) real than the other. I think perhaps reality has always been more fragile than I would want to think.
Other Opinions:
Rat's Reading
somewhere i have never travelled

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

I’d really love to see more people read this book, so I’ll tell you what: let me know if you’re interested, and in a week I’ll draw a name and buy one of you a copy.


PS: Violet was telling me that she had trouble commenting on my blog recently: She'd click the link but the comments window never opened. Did this happen to anyone else? If so, I'm really sorry for the inconvenience! I had no idea this was happening. I don't know what could have caused it, but I'll try and find out.

42 comments:

  1. I've been so eagerly awaiting your review of this...and I can absolutely say that it was worth the wait! All I have read by her is the evolution of the trickster story, which I loved. I have to admit that with both this book and with Fudoki, I worry a bit that I'll miss things because I'm so unversed in mythology and folklore. And yet I very much want to read them both. (Actually just mentioning that it has a mood somewhat similar to Spirited Away was probably enough to make me want to read it, because I so love that movie.)

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  2. i love when my expectations are surpassed...i really love that. I haven't read any of fudoki's work, maybe its time to start. thanks for the review.

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  3. wow...never heard of this before, but sounds great. This is going right on my wishlist.

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  4. I would love to read this.. count me in, thanks! :D

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  5. I knew you were going to mention Dream Hunters because it's the first thing that came to my mind when I started reading your review!
    It sounds so beautiful, I really need to read more japanese books. This goes on the list right now:)

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  6. Debi: Though it's really really hard to choose, Spirited Away is probably my favourite Ghibli movie. I just love it to bits. Mathie's favourite is Princess Monoke, another one I should have mentioned! Anyway...don't worry, there's nothing in either of these books that you could possibly not get. All you need to know about Japanese folklore is that they have stories about foxes turning into humans. And even if you didn't know that, the book itself would tell you.

    Serena: me too! It doesn't happen often, but it's so good when it does.

    Violet: Sadly this book doesn't seem as to be well-known as it deserves to!

    Claire: in you are :D

    Valentina: You know me well :P I just love books set in Japan. I'm not even sure why, but I do.

    Btw...I'm putting all your names in the metaphorical hat :P

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  7. You can't beat a book that exceeds high expectations!

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  8. Oh, sounds good! I will have to keep it in mind. I am banned from the library website... by myself, of course! lol

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  9. You find some really unique and interesting books and it's fascinating to read about them on your blog. And wow! just look at that gorgeous cover!

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  10. I'm definitely reading this, but I can get it at my library (it stares at me from the shelf every time I go) so someone else can enjoy the free copy. But I will read it very soon! It sounds wonderful.

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  11. LOL...When I was reading this review, I was thinking, "for some reason this reminds me of The Dream Hunters" and lo and behold, you said it did the same with you :) I can't wait to read this one! I saw you mention it on twitter and I added to my wishlist immediately! Oh...and I FINALLY got your penpal in the mail today :)

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  12. Thanks for the lovely review, Nymeth! It all sounds very intriguing to me! I'd love to read this so please enter my name! :D

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  13. I love the cover of this book!!

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  14. This sounds great, its wonderful when a book is better than you expect it to be. great review!
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  15. Lovely review. The excerpt you've quoted is absolutely beautiful.

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  16. Great review! I've been curious about this book ever since I saw it in the bookstore a few months ago, but I'm going to have to move it up my wishlist!

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  17. Bermudaonion: You can't :)

    Kailana: Good luck with the self-ban :P

    Cath: I love the cover too. And the book itself is even better!

    Miss D: I can't wait to see what you think!

    Chris: It's because I have read such few books that use elements of Japanese folklore. Another one that does is The Love We Share Without Knowing *hint hint*. And yay! I can't wait to get it.

    Melody: Your name's in the hat!

    Christina: Me too :)

    Naida: It's really great!

    Belle: The writing is just stunning!

    tanabata: I think you'd enjoy it!

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  18. Oh please add me to the draw; the review has really peaked my interest in the book and I want to read it and have expectations surpassed!

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  19. Nymeth, you are so, so, so very bad for my reading list... *adds it* I think I'm going to have to go and order Johnson in bulk now. (Like Debi the only thing of her work I've read is that same short story. This is obviously a gross oversight.) And I'm usually almost allergic to first person too. Very odd reaction on my part. But sounds so good!I'm most definitely interested in that draw! (I'd rush out to order it right now, but my wallet would sulk at me. ^-^; )

    I'm having no problems with the comments, by the by.

    *goes eee and squee over book a bit more*

    Also, Debi, most mythology adaptations I've read work as stand-alones quite well. I won't lie and say you won't get (slightly) more out of a story if you know what it's retelling/working with, but most are pretty good at giving you what you need to follow along. Don't let it stop you from reading books you want to read very much, please! That's not fair on you!

    *sticks nose out of other people's business ^-~*

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  20. The passages sound beautiful, especially the second-last one. It's a beautiful observation about the world some women live in. It reminds me of Tagore's stories about women who have many dreams, but are bound by the shackles of married life.

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  21. I hope the fox doesn't go around in human form by the name Kitsune, because that's such a giveaway for the people around her :P (Kitsune is Japanese for fox). Anyway, you wrote the review as such that it makes me want to read the book! I'm a fan of Japanese shape-shifters, but I mostly read about them in manga.

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  22. Nymeth, you find such fantastic and unusual books. It sounds so beautiful. Can you put my name in the draw too please.

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  23. I missed your "draw a name" sentence. So please put me in your list :)

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  24. Don't you love it when something passes your high expectations? I need to read this one. Thanks for the great review!

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  25. I wonder how many times I've said in my comments to you, "oh my gosh I have to read this!" :) But really, I'm putting this on my list for the Japanese Lit challenge and can't wait. Love with books exceed your expectations (especially since high expecations aren't always met). I had to admit that I had to look up Fudoki on Wikipedia.

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  26. Paperback Reader: your name's in the hat :)

    Shanra: Should I take that as a compliment? :P But yes, by all means read more of her work! I really think you'd enjoy it. I'm actually a fan of first person myself, especially with multiple perspectives. But anyway...your name's in the hate. And completely agree with what you were telling Debi. Knowing the myths can and often does add another layer to the story, but you can definitely follow and appreciate it even if you don't know them. And in this case, all you need to know is that shape-shifting foxes exist in Japanese folklore. But I think our Debi was just being too hard on herself, as usual :P She loved American Gods, after all!

    A Hazra: I will have to look up those stories!

    Mee: lol, she doesn't :P She calls herself Kitsune, but she doesn't tell others that's her name. And you know that's funny? When she first meets Yoshifuji in human form, she forgets to come up with a name for herself. She only realizes that oversight later on, but by that time he's so taken by the fox magic that he no longer finds anything strange. Anyway...if you have any recommendations of a good manga series that uses elements from Japanese folklore, I'd love to hear them!

    Scrap Girl: Your name's in!

    Violet, no worries :)

    Jaimie: It's the best feeling :)

    Trish: I read Fudoki a couple of months ago, and both it and this are among my favourite reads of the year so far. I can't actually decide which one I liked better. Both are set in Old Japan and both are absolutely beautiful.

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  27. Nymeth - Thank you for the wonderful review. I've decided I have to read both Fudoki and Fox Woman again, and write reviews for them.
    As for Gaiman, I have to read more of him. I so loved Sandman and Black Orchid that I gave up after being disappointed by Good Omens. I did enjoy The Graveyard Book. Where would I find the poem Locks? "Spirited Away" is the only DVD I own, I sometimes see parts of it in my dreams..

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  28. Great review. I too love having expectations surpassed. I was so afraid you were going to say you had high hopes that were dashed. Yay for good books.

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  29. This book looks fascinating! The plot sounds very intriguing. Thanks for the review!

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  30. Oh my goodness, this does sound wonderful! I love it when books just smash through all your expectations. I'll definitely be adding this to my List.

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  31. You've sold me, it sounds fantastic. And apparently there are always problems with commenting on my blog, I've given up trying to fix it. I love love Spirited Away, too.

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  32. Excellent review. I'd never heard of this author or this book and now I can hardly wait to get my hands on it!

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  33. Of course that's a compliment, you silly thing! More books to (want to) read is always a good thing!

    I need to check if I've recommended these books to a friend already or not too. She's in love with anything Japan, so these'll be right up her alley. Or I could refrain from telling her and surprise her on her birthday. Or something. ^-~ I just know she's very likely to appreciate them.

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  34. This is yet more proof that I don't actually need to look at anyone else's recs but yours. I've wanted to read this for a while, and it's on my TBR. I just have to get to it. Johnson also used to be a local girl. I never met her, but she did used to live in my hometown, so that's another level of interest the book has for me.

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  35. Sounds like this is a writer I would like, she's on the list!

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  36. Fascinating story and a great review! Another one that goes into my wishlist!

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  37. Oh I love the sound of this! The passages you added were great and it is just my kind of thing. Adding it to my list immediately!

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  38. I already had this in my OUAT pool, but now I want to go read it right away!!!

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  39. There was a story of the kitsune in that Faery Reel anthology I read last year (but reviewed this year, urgh!). It was by Hiromi Goto and it was actually quite creepy.

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  40. Oops I just came back to check out your reply.

    About manga, gosh, I have some titles on top of my head, but I'm not sure if they're translated to English. The Glass Mask is one that has elements of Japanese folklores, because it is about a Japanese girl who wants to be an actress (as in drama on stage actress). So she goes on to play many characters, among these in many Japanese stories. Then the author wrote another title about Amaterasu, the Japanese God of Sun (definitely an obscure title). About shape shifters in particular, I loved Konna Panic by Yu Asagiri (but it's pretty old title). One that's well known and I know is translated to English is Fruits Basket, but I haven't read that one, because it seems a bit high-school-ish.

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  41. Gavin, I really can't wait to see your reviews of both books. Locks is in his collection Fragile Things - it has mostly short stories, but also a few poems. Do give his other novels a try - I think you'd enjoy them! Especially American Gods, which has a feel not unlike that of Sandman.

    Sadako: lol, I didn't mean to make it sound like that :P yay for good books indeed!

    Melanie, I hope you enjoy it if you decide to read it :)

    Memory: I love it too! It doesn't happen often, but it's so great when it does.

    Amy: I was so excited when you told me you got it! I love Spirited Away too...it's my favourite Ghibli movie, and that's saying a lot because I love them all.

    Lauren: I hope you enjoy it!

    Shanra: You are too sweet :D And books make the best birthday surprises.

    Shannon: lol, I hope my next recommendation doesn't disappoint you terribly :P

    Joanna: I think you would!

    Alice:...and you too!

    Rhinoa: Yes, you most definitely need to read this, AND Fudoki!

    Eva, I can't wait to hear your thoughts :)

    Ladytink: Oooh, awesome! Another reason for me to get that anthology.

    Mee, thanks for the suggestions! I've been hearing a lot about Fruit Basket lately, actually, but what discourages me is that it's such a long series.

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  42. I was just looking through your review list when I came upon this one. I just wanted to say thank-you for putting me on to such a beautiful book I never would have found otherwise. I'm sure I didn't pick up on everything this book had to offer (it has so much depth, but presented in such a still atmosphere!) but I loved it anyway. So thanks :P

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.