The Fox Wife: A Novel

Image of The Fox Wife: A Novel
Release Date: 
February 13, 2024
Henry Holt and Co.
Reviewed by: 

“Part love story, part adventure, and part mystery, The Fox Wife is an enjoyable excursion into the beliefs and life in the China of 120 years ago.”

The Fox Wife is set in Manchuria and Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. One of its attractions is that it brings to life the China of that era for western readers, who can see the threads that lead to the dramatic changes ahead.

The main premise of the novel is that foxes, or at least some foxes, can change themselves into human form and interact with people in a variety of ways, both for good and ill.

This is based on the well-rehearsed legends of the time. One of the two main protagonists is Snow, a white, shape-changer fox, who is hunting for the man, a photographer, who was responsible for the death of her child. In other ways, she’s beautiful and charming, but her hatred for the killer knows no bounds.

These foxes, we learn, are very long lived but are not spirits. As Snow herself tells us: “Ghosts and foxes, though often confused by people, are quite different. We are living creatures, just like you, only usually better looking.”

The other protagonist is a self-styled detective, Bao. He’s had his own contacts with foxes as a child, and one helped him through a devastating disease. Two side effects of this are that his shadow fades as he ages, and that he’s able to identify lies because he hears a telltale whistle when one is spoken. Of course, the latter is very useful when he’s on a case.

The story unfolds in alternate chapters as Snow follows the trail of the photographer, albeit a twisted trail. At one point, she becomes a servant to the mistress of a successful Chinese medicine shop in the port city of Dalian. There she is annoyed to meet up with a male fox, Shiro, a self-centered pleasure-seeker, whom she despises.

The parallel story follows Bao as he investigates the death of a young woman whose body is found outside a restaurant. The owner is not concerned about how she died, but wishes to know her true name so that appropriate prayers can be said to lay her to rest and prevent her ghost from disturbing his patrons. As he investigates, Bao’s path crosses Snow’s, but only well after she’s been there.

“This case, with its overtones of foxes and lost girls, fills Bao with a strange urgency. He has the uneasy sensation that he’s walking into a shadowy realm. (He’s) setting out into an unknown forest of lies and half-truths. Somewhere within this tangle is the name of the woman who died on the restaurant doorstep.”

On one occasion he interviews a maid of a man who wanted Snow as a concubine. However, Snow vanished from a locked suite:

“Bao examines the lock. It shows no marks of being forced. The walls of the courtyard are eight feet high. Within the suite of rooms, the windows are barred save for a small window like a moon, higher than his head.

“‘The inner suite door was also locked?’

“‘Yes, both courtyard and room,’ she says. ‘But the lady never complained about being locked in every night. I remember how bright her eyes were. They sparkled in the darkness like those of an animal.’”

Snow joins her mistress and her grandson on a trip to Moji in Japan because Shiro promises that the photographer will be there. She does find him, but then hesitates to take her revenge and the opportunity is lost. Later, he’s found dead. She also meets up with Black, another male fox, with whom she has a fraught history. Black has a strange bond with her mistress, however. On the trip back another murder occurs, and it’s left to Bao to get to the bottom of the cases.

Snow and Bao are both memorable characters, and the author has no difficulty making them believable in this rich setting. Part love story, part adventure, and part mystery, The Fox Wife is an enjoyable excursion into the beliefs and life in the China of 120 years ago.