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The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson

The Fox Woman (2000)

by Kij Johnson

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A fox falls in love with a human and does everything in her power to win him for herself, no matter what. The biggest problem, other than her being a fox and him human, is that he's already married to a woman he loves. She ignores her grandfather's warnings and the numerous times she's chased off or outright attacked by the humans. She's in love and doesn't care the cost. But Yoshifuji, the object of her love, is equally fixated on the foxes. And his wife, Shikujo, who believes that foxes are evil tricksters dangerous to humans, watches as the obsession consumes her husband. All three are caught in a web of dishonesty, guilt and forbidden desires, and all three must find their own way out. One of the best endings I've read in recent memory.

Recommended if you enjoy historically accurate retellings based on Japanese fairy tales told in diary form.

3.5 stars

(SPOILER)My favorite part was when Yoshifuji goes to live with Kitsune in the fox world. I loved how time was different in their world within a world. How the fox magic manifested all around them - in the house, ladies-in-waiting, clothes, etc. Like a magical bubble in the backyard. "I think I wouldn't have seen my fox wife's illusion if I hadn't wanted it so much. That was a world where no one aged. My fox wife was eternally beautiful."(END SPOILER)

A few passages I bookmarked:

"I didn't wish I were still a mere fox, but I wished being a woman were less of a burden." (Kitsune)

"But perhaps there is something more correct even than elegance. My father owns a set of sake cups, a treasure that has been in his family for a thousand years (or so he says). They are hand-formed of rough pottery randomly splashed with black and green and silver. There is nothing delicate, nothing elegant, about them...As a child, I liked them better than the facile perfection of porcelain. 'They are honest,' my father said then. 'They do not break when you drink wine.' Perhaps honesty could be stronger, more beautiful than elegance and correctness." (Shikujo)

"...and so instead I take my tiny steps toward honesty and whisper the great truth here in my pillow book, and perhaps someday into my husband's ear (whether Yoshifuji or another). Perhaps there is a Pure Land where we go when we die. But perhaps there is not. And either way, it is wise to live well, here and now. I will not run. I will be alive. The fox woman, my husband and I. Of us all, she understood this best." (Shikujo)

"If he sees the ball rolled across the snow, I will be so happy, but it does not matter; I will still build a world of the best of all these things." (Kitsune) ( )
  flying_monkeys | Jan 18, 2017 |
Kij Johnson's first novel is an expansion of her Sturgeon-award-winning short story. It is a quiet, rather slow-moving story of three weak, unhappy people. It's based on the Japanese folk legends of "kitsune," foxes, which are rumored to have the ability to turn into people, especially beautiful women.
Yoshifuji, finding himself out of a job for the season, decides to move back to his country home, taking his wife, Shikujo with him. Once there, a young fox, Kitsune, sees Yoshifuji and falls in love with him at first sight, developing the irresistible urge to follow and pursue him, driven to great lengths to become human so that she has a chance that he will love her.
Yoshifuji is depressed, full of malaise, with no energy to pursue his career – or anything. Shikujo is also depressed, feeling constricted in her society and mildly unhappy with her marriage. (She also has a seemingly inexplicable hatred of foxes.) Kitsune is most dissatisfied of all, not to mention self-centered, as she pursues her "love" with no regard for Yoshifuji himself, his wife, or her own family's well-being.
Having flawed, human characters can certainly improve a novel. But I found all three main characters annoying and unsympathetic. I also think the book would have worked better if it was set in a Nippon-esque fantasy world rather than specifically in Heian-era Japan. Johnson obviously did a lot of research on the time period, adding in many period details – but I didn't feel that the ‘mindset' really fit the place and time. The words and thoughts of the characters often seemed, to me, to betray a modern perspective (with criticism implicit) of the society of the time, rather than coming from within that society. For example, in a society where it was customary for servants to always be present, a character would not feel the need to comment on the constant presence of those servants and muse on the nature of being alone. It would be taken for granted. There are many other such bits – comments on the place of women in society, the ‘instincts' of animals, the role of a wife, etc, all of which I felt betrayed a non-period attitude. I felt like the message of these folktales had been changed, to the point where this is more a retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid' with Japanese trappings, than a true Japanese tale.
Also, in the book, Shikujo must mention over a dozen times how, "in the tales, foxes are always evil." This is not the case (although yes, the tales often end in tragedy). Still, (according to wikipedia) "Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki argues that the Japanese regarded kitsune positively as early as the 4th century A.D." There were shrines to fox spirits, where people left offerings. Also, a fox who could change shape gained this ability through enlightenment gained over a long life (often 100 years). In contrast, the Kitsune of the novel is less than a year old, and is decidedly non-enlightened.
All that said, the book was well-written, and had a particularly well-done, powerful ending. ( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
Retelling of a Japanese fairy tale/legend about a fox who falls into infatuation/lust/love with a nobleman, becomes a woman and then his wife. Even with tragedy threaded through the whole story, we are still left with a note of optimism.

With gorgeously lyrical prose with tiny details of customs, strongly evoking medieval Japan, the author has also given us poetry from that period in epigraphs at the head of each part. The three main characters write poetry all through. This novel was a window into a bygone world.

Kitsune the Fox speaking: "We make our own worlds. My brother had fashioned his world; it seemed madness to me, but it was not mine to judge. I have fashioned and refashioned my own reality. It was the fox world, then it was magic, then a human world of sorts: robes and poetry and at its heart, Yoshifuji....
Human legends are full of fox men and fox women. Most fail and fall back into foxness. Or become human, lost in pain. Some humans learn joy and some foxes grow souls. Thieves, princes, dancers, charcoal burners--they are connected in that they have discovered this path for themselves." ( )
  janerawoof | Sep 25, 2015 |
This book was a lot better than I had thought it was going to be. Very different from what I am used to reading, but very good! ( )
  Starla.Adams.G | Aug 4, 2013 |
This book has wonderful character development. As the book progresses you not only come to understand the characters, but you see them grow in a believable and very satisfying way.

I could review other parts of the book, but I think I would only be repeating other reviews. The setting was beautifully expressed, and utterly engaging.
  dylanesque | Jun 1, 2013 |
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For Chris and for Bob. I am a lucky dog.
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Diaries are kept by men: strong brushstrokes on smooth mulberry paper, gathered into sheaves and tied with ribbon and places in a lacquered box.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312875592, Paperback)

In Western fairy tales, we've got the werewolf, the man who changes into a wolf. But in the East, it's the fox who does the changing, into a man--or, more often, a sensuous, seductive woman. In her skillful debut, Kij Johnson takes this classic Japanese myth (based in large part on a Royall Tyler translation of a particular story) and spins it into a luminous, lyrical tale, a tender and whisper-quiet study of love, desire, joy, and the nature of the soul.

The Fox Woman follows two families, one of foxes and another of humans. The restless Kaya no Yoshifuji fails to receive an appointment in the Emperor's court and, distracted and seemingly unfazed, decides to relocate to a rural estate to pass a pensive winter, accompanied by his wife Shikujo and son Tadamaro. But a young fox named Kitsune and her brother, mother, and grandfather have set up their den in the run-down estate, and soon the fate of both families becomes intertwined; Yoshifuji becomes bewitched by the foxes, and Kitsune in turn falls in love with him, much to the distress of all others involved, especially Shikujo.

Johnson tells her tale in measured, intimate passages, through Kitsune's diary, Yoshifuji's notebook, and Shikujo's pillow book. The rich, truthful depiction of the Heian-era setting, punctuated by exchanges of poetry and steeped in emotive descriptions of both the fox and human worlds, establishes a still, meditative, and rewarding pace. With her thoughtful ear, Johnson offers a mature and knowing first effort. --Paul Hughes

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:06 -0400)

In a novel set in medieval Japan, a young fox kit becomes enamored with a Japanese nobleman and will stop at nothing, even magic and sorcery, to win his heart

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