Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy award-winning writer Kij Johnson’s debut solo novel, The Fox Woman, was first published in the year 2000. It’s based on the traditional Japanese fairy tale about Kaya no Yoshifuji and incorporates the author’s research on Heian-era Japan and foxes. Though artfully written, I have mixed feelings about The Fox Woman, which is good story hindered by its slow pace.

The tale of The Fox Woman is told by alternating between the journals of three unhappy individuals: Kaya no Yoshifuji, his wife Shikujo, and an unnamed fox simply called Kitsune. After Kaya no Yoshifuji is left with no position at court following the New Year’s appointments, he and his family return to the country estate they left behind years ago—a move that upends all three main characters’ lives.

Shikujo fears foxes: they are evil in all the stories and she’s haunted by her own secret memories of one from their time living on the estate years ago. However, Kaya no Yoshifuji delights in them and spends time watching them, painting them, and writing poetry about them. When Shukijo notices her husband’s preoccupation with the foxes, she is alarmed; when her husband refuses to destroy the foxes that get into their storehouse as anyone else would, she is terrified.

Kaya no Yoshifuji’s fascination with the foxes is mutual: Kitsune has been watching him ever since the family returned and disrupted the lives of her own family, who had been living in the abandoned home. Kitsune longs for the human man so much that she learns to cry, and when she discovers there is fox magic that could make her a human woman, nothing will stop her quest to have Kaya no Yushifuji for her own.

The Fox Woman is a beautifully written book that’s a fairy tale complete with magic and Kami as well as a reflection on the human condition. Each of the three journals that comprise the novel contain elegant, graceful prose (and occasionally poetry although the humans tend to be better at it than Kitsune!), but each has a voice that fits the character. Kitsune’s journal is the least conventional; she hasn’t grown up with human social conventions and this shows in her narrative and her attempts (and failures) to understand being human.

Although Kitsune’s journal is often the most fun of the three, I thought Shikujo was the most interesting character. She tries to be a proper woman, but her appearance of perfection and lack of openness cause problems; likewise, her pillow book is the account that feels most distant and veiled by formality. Her tale is a journey of self-discovery, and she seemed the most changed by the end.

Kaya no Yoshifuji is the least interesting of the three characters, and I could not for the life of me understand why everyone kept falling in love with him. After he learns he has no position at court, he gives up, goes back to his country estate, and is miserable all the time. His narrative is filled with melancholy and pomposity as he wishes he could still live in the now and be excited by new experiences like his son. He doesn’t tear down the spiderweb in his room since the spider has been there longer than he and feels sorrow thinking of his son being “here in this spiderweb of circumstance” (pp. 34). The web and its inhabitant are mentioned frequently in his sections, as well as statements such as “being lost in the despair of adulthood” (pp. 38) and other gloomy thoughts on the meaninglessness of life.

Such a cheerful fellow, that Kaya no Yoshifuji.

Although these three perspectives are masterfully done and I appreciate the skill that went into giving them distinct personalities, sometimes these journals are a little too realistic in that they discuss minutiae only interesting to the one writing it. Early sections of the book mention repairs to the estate and Kaya no Yoshifuji going down a foxhole to find nothing, as well as other details that ring true as being part of one’s own writings but are not terribly interesting for others to read about. Kitsune doesn’t even become aware of the possibility of using fox magic to turn into a woman until about a third of the way through and most of the first half of the book is rather tedious.

Although the second half is far more engaging than the first, it is also occasionally bogged down by boring sections. I had very mixed feelings about the ending, which contains some lovely writing but also has a frustrating lack of closure. I suppose that makes sense since it’s more about the individuals and how they grew over the course of the novel than the plot, but although a lack of resolution doesn’t always bother me, it did in this particular case since it was so focused on these three and then left their fates up in the air!

The Fox Woman is a book that I appreciated more than enjoyed. Artistically, the prose is gorgeous with three narratives that suit the main characters supposedly writing them. Unfortunately, the journal structure can be a little too true to life, focusing on details that are not particularly exciting to read or overwrought, melodramatic reflections (in the case of Kaya no Yoshifuji). Although I found the overall story and the voices interesting, I can’t say it was a particularly entertaining novel; however, I’ll remember it at least a little fondly because at least it stood out as stylistically different.

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was on my wish list, and I received it as a Christmas gift.

This book is May’s selection from a poll on Patreon.