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The Fox Wife


The Fox Wife

Yangsze Choo's new novel, THE FOX WIFE, is an atmospheric and magical blend of Asian folklore, a mother’s search for revenge, and the mystery of a missing girl.

“Foxes, people say, are wicked women.” The year is 1908, and the Qing dynasty is in decline after ruling China for three centuries. The population, which considers the Qings to be invaders, has become restless, relying on old folk tales and superstitions for guidance rather than the Western sciences and technologies that have begun creeping across Japan and China. Unlike the changing world, with its battles for cities and titles, superstitions remain the same --- dependable and comforting --- and no superstition is quite as prevalent as that of the fox. In Northwest China, villagers still worship at fox shrines, consult mediums channeling fox spirits, and invoke exorcists to drive out particularly cunning ones.

So naturally it makes sense that THE FOX WIFE is narrated in part by a fox. Possessing the keen ability of a fox to transform into a woman, Snow Hu has infiltrated a wealthy pharmaceutical family with an eye on vengeance. Some time ago, a photographer named Bektu Nikan commissioned the death of her child, her fox pup, and she has hunted him ever since.

"THE FOX WIFE is a brilliant, luscious exploration of identity, revenge and mortality. Choo achieves the perfect literary balance in her writing: lyrical and cadenced, but charmingly accessible."

However, Snow is not the only hunter in town. Not too long after she arrives, the body of a decorated courtesan is discovered on the steps of a popular restaurant. Wearing a flimsy, beautiful dress and a beatific smile, the mysterious woman was unidentified when her case was closed and her body was buried. But since her death, the restaurant has fallen on hard times, with suspicious happenings plaguing their kitchen, their books and their clients. Desperate to preserve his business, the owner calls in Bao Gong, a renowned detective known for his ability to sniff out even the most convincing lie.

What the owner doesn’t know --- and what most of Bao’s clients don’t know either --- is that Bao’s ability is neither learned nor practiced, but a gift given to him by a fox god as a child. Because his unique talent is so tightly tied to the legends of fox gods and spirits, he feels innately tied to these mystical beings. When he hears that a white fox appeared on the same night the woman died, his interest is piqued. But before he unveils the tie between the woman and the fox, he must identify her and learn how and why she died alone on the stoop that freezing night.

With both Snow and Bao in Manchuria, their investigations lead them to the same name: Bektu Nikan. While Snow wants to murder the man who caused the death of her pup, Bao’s course is a bit more complicated. He learns that the dead woman may be a sex worker who disappeared from a nearby brothel and that she recently had captured the fancy of Mr. Wang. This wealthy man is known for hosting glamorous parties with professional “entertainers,” and he may be keeping a few of his favorite entertainers and courtesans locked away in his compound. With the body buried, Bao is in search of one specific clue: a photograph taken by Nikan. His sources tell him that Nikan is hiding in the remote Wu Village.

Meanwhile, Snow’s work as a maidservant to the matriarch of an esteemed family has put her in the crosshairs of another fox masquerading as a human. Her mistress seems keenly aware of the spirit world and distrusts her grandson’s close friendship with the cunning, foxlike (oh so foxlike) Shirakawa, and she tasks Snow with determining the true nature of their friendship. Privately, Shirakawa (known to Snow as Shiro) tells Snow that he knows about her search for revenge, and he is willing to lead her to Nikan. But the photographer-murderer is now in Japan, where Shiro plans to take her mistress’s grandson on “business.”

As her own plans for vengeance dovetail with her mistress’s journey to Japan to protect her grandson, it would seem that luck is in Snow’s favor. But she cannot shake the ominous feeling that trouble lies ahead. At the same time, as Bao approaches Wu Village, the overtones of foxes and lost girls start to fill him with the uneasy sensation that he’s approaching a sort of shadow realm where lies and half-truths will be uncovered, and the line between life and death, civilization and wilderness, will be blurred, if not broken.

What awaits Snow in Japan has dangerous repercussions. As Bao’s investigation starts to uncover ties between the missing girl, the photographer and rumors of a beautiful, cunning white fox, it becomes apparent that the spirits have intervened. Alternating chapters between Snow’s search for vengeance and Bao’s search for answers, Yangsze Choo weaves an absorbing, atmospheric tale that is part love story, part mystery and all magic.

THE FOX WIFE is a brilliant, luscious exploration of identity, revenge and mortality. Choo achieves the perfect literary balance in her writing: lyrical and cadenced, but charmingly accessible. Even as she details complex histories and various versions of popular mythologies, she welcomes and invites readers into the richness of her text, never obfuscating or overwriting her themes. The character of Snow is written with a wry, whimsical voice. While her search for revenge is enough to keep you reading, it is her clear-eyed observations on the imbalances between men and women (both as humans and as foxes) that give this novel serious heft and make it seem timely and inciting, even as it dives deep into China’s storied history.

It goes without saying that some suspension of disbelief is required here, but the payoff is worth double the cost of entry. Choo’s masterly handling and control of her mythologies make suspension easy and belief rewarding.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 2, 2024

The Fox Wife
by Yangsze Choo

  • Publication Date: February 13, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 1250266017
  • ISBN-13: 9781250266019