Fox Fires by Wyl Menmuir

Menmuir’s moving second novel explores the mysterious city-state of O through the eyes of a girl hoping to learn more about her past through its labyrinthe present

Salt Publishing, 2021

Fox Fires is the the latest novel by Wyl Menuir, who follows-up his Man Booker-longlisted debut, The Many, with an absorbing and thought-provoking puzzle of a book.

With a little Calvino, a pinch of Kafka, the star of Fox Fires is its evocation and navigation of place. Menmuir leads us deep into a shifting labyrinth of space and memory, a sci-fi noir, where the mystery is found in its series of absences.

Wren Lithgow arrives in O with her demanding diva of a mother, who is preparing to play a concert in the mysterious city-state. Prior to their arrival they lived in Berlin, before this their transient existence saw them step across other European countries, with Wren growing up following her mother’s musical career across the continent. This constant movement is at the heart of the book. Wren is rootless, searching for a place to call home and is hoping to edge herself closer to an answer to finding it upon their arrival in O – the mysterious place of her birth.

Highly immersive, the post-conflict environment of O encourages us to navigate the secrets of the winding streets through the eyes of the 19-year old. Wren is haunted by the relationships with her emotionally absent concert pianist mother and her physically absent father, whose name Wren is not even allowed to know. It is this absence and sense of identity loss which drives the motivation behind Wren’s story. Who is her father? Why does her mother not want to speak of him? How does he and the history of O itself make-up Wren’s DNA?

A truly sensory experience, the sights and smells of O radiate across the imagination. We get introduced to and subsequently explore the city through Wren’s eyes. This sense of discovery of place, despite the completely different medium, recalls the claustrophobic virtual world found in the explorative first-person perspective Dishonored video games. The reader feels as if they are there with Wren, via literary VR, absorbing the muddy hues and slightly alien textures, searching for clues within the narrow pathways, side passages and hidden shortcuts unfurling in front of us. We can feel the walls, as well as the many eyes of the city, watching Wren as she endeavours to make sense of the city and the emotions and memories it triggers.

With a twisting thread borrowed from Greek mythology running throughout, the novel encourages us to guess at times, who, or what, is playing the minotaur pacing their way through the labyrinth of O and indeed Theseus attempting to navigate it. A person or place? Imagination or memories? It’s important to note that the difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that the latter has a single continuous path which leads to its centre, and as long as you keep going forward, you will get there eventually. And this is what Wren believes; she has a paranoid propulsion to keep pushing forward to try and unlock the secrets of the city.

Propelled by a fast pace and crisp prose, Fox Fire’s deft narrative strands snake their way through O, as Wren strives to try and make sense of her past through her unravelling present. Sharing a similar post-apocalyptic eeriness and a world beset by fractured memories of Nikos Nikolaidis’ 1987 film Morning Patrol – which features a woman traveling alone through a destroyed and abandoned city – and the reverence for sacred page and hidden place found in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, Fox Fires is an absorbing journey through a magical mystery in a sprawling city without a map.

Fox Fires was released on 15th March 2021 and is published by Salt.

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