Books

Jo Lennan
In the Time of Foxes

“In London, where Nina lived, it was the time of foxes.” So begins Australian author Jo Lennan’s book of short stories. But if In the Time of Foxes starts like a fairytale, it reads more like a treatise on the grittiness – the small disappointments, the big injustices, as well as the joys – of everyday life.

In the title story, Australian film director Nina lives in Hackney with her husband and toddler son. Foxes have arrived en masse into the city, moving “from garden to garden, heeding neither man nor fence”. As a fox family colonises Nina’s backyard, she must also come to terms with the colonisation of her mother’s brain: aged 63, and living alone in Wollongong, her mother finds her sense of self and her memories disintegrating because of Alzheimer’s disease.

Foxes are woven through the collection’s stories, which have titles such as “Animal Behaviour” and “Fox Face”. In the latter, set in Japan, the attraction of the fox as a literary device is clear: there, it is “a shapeshifter, a spirit being”. Ultimately, though, Lennan makes the fox bend to her will. In “The Invitation,” about an English teacher’s short bittersweet embracement by a Russian oligarch’s family in Moscow, the fox is used as a metaphor for the head of the household, an example of a survivor, able to thrive in abject conditions. In “Day Zero,” meanwhile, a journalist lives in a community in space: on Earth, a rare flower, “fox’s breath”, is heralded as either a dangerous toxin or a miracle cure.

Foxes provide a common thread. Yet their inclusion in every narrative feels forced – an often too clever trick that can wrench the reader out of the story. That is a shame because Lennan is a master at creating worlds: above all, she is able to make the small details stick, framing the story about one topic while really exploring another.

“Day Zero” exemplifies this quality: seemingly about space, it is actually about death, with the 31-year-old protagonist, Sebastian, facing an almost-certain terminal cancer diagnosis. That Lennan has written about her own past cancer trials for The Saturday Paper provides Sebastian’s story with a core kernel of truth: it is never sentimental, yet always somehow sad, an example of the fruitlessness of human endeavour. As one character puts it: “To think we’ve come so far, only to bring our problems with us.”

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

Scribner, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Jo Lennan, In the Time of Foxes".

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Reviewer: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore