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Brilliantly twisty tale about games we play with words

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Mr. Fox

By Helen Oyeyemi

Hamish Hamilton, 324 pages, $22

YOU could call Helen Oyeyemi's new novel a fairy tale romance, but only if you're thinking of fairy tales in their original Grimm, and grim, sense.

Examining male-female relationships, the Brit author offers a brilliantly twisty take on the Bluebeard story: "The usual -- wooing, seduction, then -- the discovery of a chopped-up predecessor."

A playfully comic, killingly serious, frequently ferocious literary romp, Mr. Fox is the fourth novel from the Nigerian-born Oyeyemi, who became a publishing prodigy when she released her first, The Icarus Girl, in 2005 at age 19.

This time she sets up a showdown between an American writer of the 1930s, the charming if slightly narcissistic St. John Fox, and his muse, Mary Foxe. A dreamed-up figment who seems to be taking on her own independent existence, Mary is causing trouble, not least with St. John's wife, Daphne.

Mary also pesters St. John about his predilection for killing off female characters in gruesome ways. "Can you tell me why it's necessary for Roberta to saw off a hand and foot and bleed to death at the church altar?" she asks.

"It's ridiculous to be sensitive about the content of fiction," St. John counters. "It's not real. It's all just a lot of games."

The two Foxes work out their argument in bouts of storytelling, a device that allows Oyeyemi to sample styles and subjects with word-devouring relish. She sets up -- and then takes down -- sparkling screwball comedy, Yoruba folktale, social satire and Hitchcock-styled psychological suspense.

Along with echoes of the Bluebeard story, there is the recurring character of Reynardine, who traces back to an English ballad about a creature who imprisons young women in a mountain castle and whose name riffs on the French word for fox.

Another section is a comic inversion of The Story of O, set at a school that turns out world-class husbands through a strict curriculum of "Strong Handshakes, Silence, Rudimentary Car Mechanics, How to Mow the Lawn, Explosive Displays of Authority, Sport and Nutrition Against Impotence."

The best sections exhibit breathtaking bravura, but not everything in this literary puzzle fits. An attempt to get allegorical with the Iraq war feels forced and uncharacteristically awkward.

Oyeyemi's work tends to have a spooky component. In her other books she has written about spirits, magic and doubles. There is horror here, sometimes exploding with the sudden violence of a slasher flick, but more often elliptical and allusive.

The reader begins to wonder if Mr. Fox is imagining Miss Foxe, or if Miss Foxe, who's been known to scribble a bit herself, is imagining Mr. Fox. At the same time, the reader knows that Oyeyemi is conjuring them both, all in the service of a tricky bit of meta-fiction.

Exploring aggression as the dark underside of intimacy and inspiration, Oyeyemi questions the power-hungry urges of authorship, including her own.

She also speculates about whether romantic love is another kind of dangerous fiction. Can St. John see a woman as herself, or only as an extension of his own needs and desires? "I'd like not to disappear when you're not thinking about me," Mary Foxe tells him at one point.

Mr. Fox is about the games we play with words. For Oyeyemi they are very important games, and she plays with fierceness, unexpected tenderness and rapt concentration.

Winnipeg journalist Alison Gillmor did not publish her first novel at age 19.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2011 J7

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