When Fox Is a Thousand

by Larissa Lai,
ISBN: 0889740410

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First Novels - Ninth Century Fox
by Eva Tihanyi

No beating around the bush on this one: When Fox is a Thousand (Press Gang, 256 pages, $16.95 paper) by the twenty-eight-year-old Larissa Lai is a remarkable debut. It is a magical book, rich with poetry and folklore, and elements of fairy-tale. In it, three narrative voices and their attendant cultures are interwoven: a fox growing toward wisdom and her thousandth birthday, the ninth-century Chinese poetess Yu Hsuan-Chi, and the oddly named Artemis, a young Asian-American woman living in contemporary Vancouver. Lai moves with a sure hand from one to the other throughout the novel. She seems as comfortable in the world of Chinese mythology as she does in the west coast Canada of the nineties, with its underlying tensions: its racism, homophobia, and general ennui.

It is a Chinese myth that when foxes reach the age of fifty, they acquire the power to transform into women. As they grow older, they become more powerful. And when they reach a thousand, they are "in communication with Heaven." If the fox is the voice of spiritual evolution, Yu Hsuan-Chi is the voice of history, as Artemis is of how history repeats itself. (Her life parallels Yu Hsuan-Chi's in a number of disconcerting ways.) The struggle of Artemis and her friends to come to terms with their Chinese heritage, their sexuality, and their relationships with one another, forms the backbone of the story, but Lai's main concern is not so much with events as with how they affect human beings. Her potent imagination and considerable verbal skill result in a tale that continues to haunt long after the book is closed.


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