I liked this book, although I liked Fudoki, Johnson’s later novel, better.
This one is a fairy tale retelling set in medieval Japan, about a fox who falls in love with a man and turns into a human (or an illusion of a human) in order to have him. It’s told in epistolary form, through the diaries of the three main characters: the fox, the man, and the man’s wife. Multiple narrators are the curse of the ambitious debut author, but while all three voices clearly come from the same writer, this didn’t bother me here, perhaps because of the fairy-tale ambiance and the elegant prose. Additionally, the book switches between narrators every couple of pages, which helps counteract the story’s very leisurely pace and keep readers’ interest.
There is a lot to admire here: well-drawn characters, a strong sense of a place and respectful, apparently well-researched handling of the setting, the insertion of non-embarrassing bits of poetry that the characters often use to communicate. Johnson does a great job of creating and maintaining a mood: pensive, reflective, almost melancholy, which fits the story exactly. And the themes of wilderness vs. civilization and illusion vs. reality are well-handled and leave room for reflection. The foxes’ world is an illusion: but how much of human civilization is a fiction in one way or another?
Still, I prefer Fudoki: Johnson’s writing style, while good here, improved between the two books, and Fudoki has more relationships between women and less icky sex and obsessive romance. (The romance between the man and fox here may not have been intended to be romantic; in any case, it isn’t.) But if you’re looking for a good historical fantasy or fairy-tale retelling and don’t mind a slower pace, you could do far worse than The Fox Woman.