The Fox Woman

by Kij Johnson

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

A dreamlike vision of medieval Japan, The Fox Woman is about a fox and an aristocratic couple dissatisfied with their marriage in both vague and particular ways. Kaya no Yoshifuji has failed to obtain a court position. As his wife puts it, "When two men of equal quality are proposed for the same job, why would it be given to the individual who appears more likely to cast aside the miseries of the world and flee to a life of contemplation in a monastery?" He flees, instead, to his ramshackle country property, whose untended state, mossy and rotting, with animals and vermin taking up residence in the buildings, echoes his psyche, unhappy but fecund. He is astonished that his wife, Shikujo, would come along. "Like her poems, her life has always been elegant but lacking spark."

Under Yoshifuji's house is a den of foxes, wild and natural creatures to whom the best scenes belong, one of them when the young female goes into heat. But the foxes are not entirely natural. The young female conceives a strange longing for Yoshifuji. Grandfather Fox has secrets of his own. It is possible, he finally admits, for a fox to take on a human shape. "Poor little bug-eater," he tells his granddaughter. "Are you so sure this is what you want? There is no way to unlearn these lessons."

When love unmakes us, does it do so for the better or for the worse? What does a woman gain in return for giving up her wildness and freedom to love a man? What does a man gain in return for giving up his dignity and his hold on mundane reality to love a woman whose wildness is what most attracts him? The Fox Woman is historical fantasy that addresses questions still burning in the real world. It is as elegant as Shikujo's poems, even in the sex scenes, as unashamedly explicit as the desires of foxes. (2000; 382 pages, including an Author's Note about the folklore, history and sources behind the novel)

More about The Fox Woman at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Other novels set in medieval Japan:

The Snow Fox by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (2004), a love story about a couple separated by civil war in medieval Japan. More info

The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby (2000), about the eleventh-century Japanese woman who wrote The Tale of Genji. More info

The Convict's Sword by I.J. Parker (2009), a murder mystery featuring an official in eleventh-century Japan who becomes fascinated by a beautiful woman as his marriage falls into disrepair; #6 in the Akitada mystery series. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Japanese Folk Tales:

Japanese Tales by Royall Tyler (1987), includes the traditional Japanese fairy tale that inspired The Fox Woman. More info

Nonfiction about Japan in the Heian era:

The Gossamer Years by Michitsuna No Haha (9th century), the diary of an aristocratic married woman in Heian-era Japan. More info

Heian Japan, Centers and Periphery edited by Mikael Adolphson (2007). More info


Kitsune: Coyote of the Orient by Watts Martin, about supernatural foxes in Japanese folklore

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