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.Other Opinions:
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.
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.