The Fox Woman, Kij Johnson

I am going through a binge right now where I am trying to lay my hands on fiction set in medieval or feudal Japan.  The Fox woman is one such story, set in Heian era Japan.

The book is based on a folktale, in which a married man falls in love with a fox woman, marries her, apparently has a family with her.  It is only with the intervention of the villagers and the priest, does he get back to his human family.

The story is written with three first person pov accounts. From the wife SHujiko, husband Yoshifuji and The fox woman Kitsune. I found this not well done. The husband and wife sounded the same while  Kitsune had a clear distinct voice.

Kij begins with the married couple, Shujiko and Yoshifuji. They are rich and idle and are beset with marital problems.  The problems are bit hard to empathize with because of the setting. Shujiko is quiet and demure, suffers silently because women are supposed to be bear it all. Yoshifuji finds his wife unrealistically perfect.  The first half of the book was slow going over the emotional problems.  I thought it laboriously slow and found myself straining to care really.

From the wild, kitsune and her fox family watch over the family curiously. At first, this was interesting until the Kitsune suddenly falls in love with Yoshifuji.  Then Kitsune turnas into the annoying teenage girl who is in love.  She is strident,  she wants her man, despite the obvious problems and consternation from her family.  I didn’t like her at all.  I suppose she was to supposed to correct for Shujiko’s passiveness. But I just found her to be an incorrigible husband stealer.  And I couldn’t understand the basis of her love.

Through some contrivance Kitsune and Yoshifuji get married and make a family while Shujiko and her son worry about the missing husband. This was the part of the book was hard for me to read.  First off, Yoshifuji easily abandons his family for the fox woman.  I might have sympathised if there was something substantial to the attraction, but it was a nothing.  It seemed to me just some kind of physical attraction.  I was not feeling it.  Also Kitsune becomes really annoying as she tries hold onto Yoshifuji while her family has to put up with it all.    I was just reading through, wishing quickly for an act of god to end the farce.  Shujiko, meanwhile, becomes a stronger character in my estimation.  She slowly learns to be stronger. If not for her transformation, I would have deemed the book a hollow reed.

The author Kij Johnson is a Nebula award winner.  She is no lightweight, clearly.  But her writing style was not my taste. The prose was rich with description but I found the imagery lacking.  For all its richness, there were only one or two lines that struck  me.  In fact the prose was too rich. I think this is my own subjective taste here.  I do like highfalutin prose but the certain kind that is brazen with cleverness and witticism. This prose was more on the soft poetic side.

There was too much pathos and emotional wrangling, and not enough psychological heft.  I suppose being first person accounts I shouldn’t expect more psychological depth but I really wished for something to counterbalance the emotions because I wasn’t feeling it.

The husband is a heian nobleman so he’s supposed to be interested in poetry and hunting and things of a delicate aesthetic.  However, Kij mishandles his masculinity, I think, in the sex scenes from his pov.  They were really sounded like a woman wrote them, all flowery and emotional.  I think it takes a certain skill to show delicate sensibilities while still retaining an essential maleness to it, and Kij doesn’t quite grasp it.

Also there were the clumsy insertions of  random japanese words like sake-wine, shoji-screen, and things like that.  It was annoying. It added nothing. It didn’t make me more transported to medieval Japan, only reminded me that Kij knows a few Japanese words.

On the whole, the book is well written but the characters fell apart for me.  The writing is strong, very strong but not to my taste. But if you’re interested in Heian culture, then definitely read this book. It is very detailed and very interesting in that regard.

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