When Fox Is a Thousand

by Larissa Lai

Cover image

Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
Copyright: 1995
Printing: 2004
ISBN: 1-55152-168-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 259

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When a fox is fifty, it can take the form of a woman. When it is one hundred, it can take the form of a beautiful girl. When it is a thousand, it can speak to Heaven and will never die.

Before reading this book, I was completely unfamiliar with the place of the fox in Chinese mythology. This made me a fitting audience for this book in some ways, since Lai is rewriting old folktales and myths from her own perspective, taking them apart and applying them to a completely different community, that of second-generation Chinese-Canadian immigrants. Not being female, Chinese, or from an immigrant family, there is a great deal in this book that I'm sure that I've missed, but I still found it fascinating to think about.

I will warn that one can accuse this book of not being about anything, in the sense that it doesn't have a clear plot or a straightforward conclusion. It is told in two entwining narratives, one in modern-day Vancouver and the other in medieval China, telling the stories of the people who crossed paths with one particular fox primarily in slices of their lives. I got a bit lost at times with the stories of China, and I think I missed several connections between characters that I was supposed to pick up on. The modern-day periods were easier to follow, but for much of the book I was expecting events to gell into a story with a clear climax. While there was a climax of sorts, this didn't turn out to be that sort of story.

What sort of story it is is hard to say. Certainly, it is about identity, cultural, racial, and to a degree, gender. It is about the mythology of foxes, and much of the enjoyment comes from the fox's irreverant and mischievous attitude towards life. For me, it was also about trust, friendship, and relationships, and the difficulties that undermine all three. The humans in this story have a very difficult time loving each other, living with each other, and understanding each other, while the fox haunts the edges of the story, getting too close and having a hard time letting go. In the present time, the lack of community and structure seems to be part of the problem, but in the past having that structure can trap as much as it can help.

I liked both Artemis in the current time and the Poetess in the past, not to mention enjoying the fox's perspective, despite feeling a bit baffled by all three. More than that, I loved the storytelling and images, the feelings of mood and image Lai captures. And the afterword in the revised edition that I read was fascinating, and made me want to read more by Larissa Lai on anthropology and immigrant culture.

If you're in the mood for a beautifully written twist on an old mythology, this is worth a look, particularly if you have others to read it with. This is the sort of book that I would have enjoyed reading as part of a book club or reading group, since I think I would have gotten even more out of it by talking it over with other people.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-01-30

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