I believe that multiple narrator novels are difficult to do well, so please pardon my jealousy as I sit here seething over how Johnson makes it look easy.
The Fox Woman is set in ancient Japan, and follows Yoshifuji, a courtier who decides to retreat into the country after political disgrace, Shikujo, his wife, trapped by her determination to be perfect, and Kitsune, a fox living on their estate.
Anthropomorphism is something which, in my experience, either works very well, or is laughably bad. Johnson definitely fits the former bracket.
“…Art is itself, but also the thing it appears to be… Like the moon and its reflection in a puddle. The puddle does not have the real moon. If you bite it, it shatters, it is just water in the dirt. But every detail of the moon is there, so, yes, it is the moon. What was it of, this reflection?”
“Of us, Grandfather,” Brother said.
There was silence for a long breath. “That is bad.”
There is a long list of things I like about this novel, from its sumptuous prose and magical themes to its fantastic storyline and distinct characterisation of the three protagonists, but the main thing for me was the character development. Yoshifuji starts the novel selfish and blind, Shikujo secretive, vain, and Kitsune arrogant. By the end all are changed.
The story is, at first glance, the story of Kitsune and Yoshifuji. Kitsune’s love for this man, and the terrible things she is willing to do to have him. But I think the true heroine of the novel is Shikujo. Certainly I found her transformation the most compelling, and the truest to what seems to be the message of the book – the difference between being alive, and living.
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.
And the writing. I have already said sumptuous, but that does no justice. Captivating, romantic, rich, dark and lascivious, Johnson’s prose is a literary treat.
My one qualm is that I do feel Yoshifuji started the novel a fool, and though he was a different man by the end, I still felt him to be incredibly foolish, something which made him a little unconvincing as a love interest, next to Kitsune’s burgeoning insight, and Shikujo’s intelligence.
But overall, I loved it. I am looking forward to sampling Johnson’s other work, and based on this (as well as The Guest Cat), I am really in the mood to sample more Japanese-themed literature. Any suggestions will be welcomed!
Life is better lived as an adventure than as a work of art, I think.