The Fox Wife: A Novel

  • By Yangsze Choo
  • Henry Holt & Company
  • 400 pp.

A wise, folktale-like romance set in 1900s China.

The Fox Wife: A Novel

Yangsze Choo’s The Fox Wife is a graceful, unassuming novel set in 1908 China in the waning years of that nation’s final imperial dynasty. The story is built around interlocking halves unspooling in alternating chapters, equal parts folktale and mystery.

At first, the interlacing in this hybrid saga might seem discordant, its mildly fuzzy folkloric ambiguity at odds with the stark exigencies of investigation and discovery. But here, owing mostly to Choo’s remarkably understated narrative voice, the parallel plots mesh in pleasing yin-yang harmony.

The story unfolds around dual quests. The first thread — a heady plunge into magical realism — centers on a shape-shifting fox, a staple of Chinese folklore. Here, the animal assumes the guise of a beautiful young woman. But unlike folkloric shapeshifters elsewhere, this fox-in-disguise is neither temptress nor trickster but a fully sympathetic protagonist who merits a full measure of readers’ empathy. Such fellow feeling undergirds a few embellishments endemic to wonder tales like this (and to contemporary romance fiction as well).

Snow, to use the human name our vulpine heroine goes by, has traversed Manchuria, intent on finding the man responsible for the killing of her fox child some years before. Her growing compulsion for vengeance ultimately leads her into the family circle of an elderly, well-off widow, who takes Snow on as her personal servant. It’s here that Snow’s slow-to-develop blood quest begins to find purchase.

In The Fox Wife’s second narrative — a whodunit of the soft-boiled school, if you will — a retired schoolteacher turned P.I. is seeking the midnight killer of a courtesan left to die in the snow. If we transpose courtesan to tycoon’s mistress, it’s a set-up worthy of Chandler or Spillane. Still, don’t expect any rough stuff in Detective Bao’s protocol. He’s entirely cerebral and blandly serene, with an unerring — and appropriately eerie — knack for spotting an untruth as it leaves a speaker’s lips.

Choo nudges her episodic tale along at a nightstand-friendly pace, dressing her story with vivid helpings of sensuous period detail. Here’s a sampling from different moments in the novel:

“After a hot soak at the communal bathhouse — where for a fee you can wash, get a shave, and relax on a reed mat afterwards, listening to the singing of caged songbirds’’; “the stall awnings were lit with flickering oil lamps, and crowds of people pressed past, buying steamed rice cakes and candied hawthorns”; “there are at least 100 traditional hairstyles for women, with different variations announcing age and status…unfortunately, they all involve pulling and pinning your hair so tightly that you want to scream.’’

References to evocative native cuisine — drunken chicken, translucent jellyfish, pork buns, pungent raw garlic, crispy pancakes, sturgeon, roast pork loin — also recur at a per-chapter frequency that echoes the rivulet of foodie-flattering clues oozing through New Yorker crosswords. For some readers, this will prove to be a mouth-watering plus.

On to conventional matters, specifically the small-R romantic commonplace of uniting long-separated lovers. After her quest is satisfactorily resolved, Snow is free — misunderstandings cleared up — to reunite with her love, another fox-human shapeshifter, who’s lingered latterly in the story under another guise. And Detective Bao, too, his own search put to rest, encounters the long-ago love central to his fantasy life for some 50 years and more, in a surprising situation where mischances might be corrected. Sweet, right?

This is a novel geared to a marketplace often conceived as weighted toward women. Fans of today’s genre romances will likely find The Fox Wife hard to put down until they reach its humane and happy outcome. Not a romance fan? This book may not pluck your heartstrings or swell your bellows, but it’s a strong enough tale to grab at your imagination and inspire your admiration for a very fine writer.

Bob Duffy reviews frequently for the Independent.

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