Éric Mathieu’s The Little Fox of Mayerville (translated by Peter McCambridge)* represents a bit of a departure from recent QC Fiction offerings such as Prague and In the End They Told Them all to Get Lost, which while being ingenious works of fiction, may not have been to everyone’s taste like the Giller-nominated Songs for the Cold of Heart. The Little Fox is more representative of that book, and some earlier QC Fiction offerings, many of which I have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing. (See all my QC Fiction reviews here.)
“The Little Fox” is the nickname given to Émile Claudel, for he was born with red hair, protruding ears and a long aquiline nose. He was also born talking and reciting poetry and lines from obscure plays all to the embarrassment of his mother, who never understood a word of it. It seems young Émile was sly too, always secreting himself in tight spaces so he could spy on people. In this way, he learns a lot about the goings-on in Mayerville, France. Émile wants to discover who his father really is. Is it the man married to his mother or one of her other lovers, such as the evil Louis Ducal who owns the house they live in? Or is it their gardener with whom his mother disappears every afternoon? The American G.I. who was billeted there during the war? There are many possibilities.
His bedraggled mother, France keeps her past locked up in the loft (Émile, of course, discovers where she hides the key) and feeds her sorrow and anguish like the terrible, eight-legged beast that sits in the shadows, something straight out of a Lovecraftian nightmare:
You see your mother going up into the loft. Her head’s down, she looks deflated. You follow her. She drags her feet as she makes her way to the far end below the eaves, where you’ve not yet ventured because it’s too dark. Your mother is swallowed up by the darkness. You hear her crying. You hesitate for a moment. You should go back to your room, but instead you continue through the darkness and there she is, on her knees, one hand covering her mouth and the other reaching out to a hideous shape in the corner, an eight-legged monster with the tail of a rat and the mouth of a whale, a mouth that it opens imploringly, like a starving baby bird. The stench is unbearable and you struggle not to vomit. Your mother is petting the thing as she cries. She hugs the beast and soon it purrs and falls asleep, then your mother stands and goes back down to the kitchen.
Likely one of Emile’s frequent nightmares, his mother’s hidden personal beast of the more carefree past, the drudgery of the present and hopelessness of the future must be fed until it settles down; until the next feeding.
Tired of Émile and his antics, his parents “abandon” him to a boy’s home in a nearby village. “I’ve raised you for eight years. That’s enough” his father tells him. This takes the reader into Part III of the book, which covers his struggles in the boy’s home and his eventual escape from it, living in the woods:
I passed through sleepy, morose villages with mysterious names: Coussey, Autigny-la-Tour, Soulosse-sous Saint Elophe, Liffol-le-Grand. I wound my way along lusty paths, cut across meadows, and ate wild berries and mushrooms. Whenever I saw farmers on their tractors, out in the fields with their ploughs, I hid. My toes were bleeding, my knees were scraped raw. The little cuts took ages to heal because I would always rip the scabs off. I bathed in the Vair and dried off in the sun. I slept at the foot of trees, curled up in their roots. I’d wake in the morning, my eyelashes stuck together, a bitter taste in my mouth, my hair covered with leaves, twigs, and mud.
He eventually hooks up with a travelling carnival working as an assistant to Marmol the Magician, a hard-drinking, abusive man. After that man dies, Emile is freed from the carnival life and eventually, Emile’s life comes full circle at age eighteen when his life is “set to begin” in the early 1960s.
The first thing a reader may notice about The Little Fox is the chapters. Some are long; others are poetic in form and some are only one sentence. Take, for example, a couple of my favourites, Chapter 22 (of Part II): “The night bled, the day cried” and Chapter 45 (Part III): “Sooner or later you’ll wake up.” Each of these little chapters serves to summarize what just went before, what will come, or just to move the story forward. This keeps the reader turning the pages, eager to see what’s going to happen next to the “little fox.”
In conclusion, The Little Fox of Mayerville is a cleverly written story which cunningly commands the reader’s attention. The Little Fox of Mayerville will go on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards in the Fiction category.
*This review was based on an Advance Reading Copy provided by QC Fiction.
The Little Fox of Mayerville by Éric Mathieu, translated by Peter McCambridge
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