Fudoki, by Kij Johnson
10/10, a pair of intertwined, magical stories set in 12th century Japan
Kij Johnson’s “The Fox Woman” was one of those books that I looked at a dozen times before picking up. I’m wary of picking up books just because they feature “fox” in the title, even though those are the ones that catch my eye. I did eventually pick it up and read it, and loved it. It does have foxes in it, magical ones, and it is about one of them falling in love with a human, and the frustrations and anguish we find when our desires lie outside our world, whether romantic or otherwise. Besides the beautiful story, it was set in a lovely world where magic is not common but not unknown, where a fox might turn into a human woman to woo a man, all woven into the delicate world of ancient Japan. It’s like a cross between Kazuo Ishiguro and Tim Powers, and if you’ve been reading my other reviews, you know that’s high praise indeed.
Why, then, did it take me so long to pick up “Fudoki”? It’s by the same author, set in the same world. I suppose that it was just that it did not come out until after I’d finished “The Fox Woman,” and so there was always another book to read. Thank goodness for Tower Records’ bankruptcy, which allowed me to grab “Fudoki” off the shelves of a closing Tower Books and read it this past month.
If you haven’t read “The Fox Woman,” you should start with that. Not only because it’s a slightly better book, but because a few elements of that story trickle into “Fudoki.” Nevertheless, each story stands on its own, and you don’t need to read one before the other. “The Fox Woman” starts with a fox; “Fudoki” starts with a cat. The title is the cat’s word for the family history that defines her. Each cat has a fudoki, in which she will one day take her place (the cat’s world is a female-dominated world, into which males flit in and out long enough to make kittens and cause trouble, and little more; perhaps they have their own fudoki). The cat’s story is being written by Harueme, aging daughter of a long-dead emperor, who tells her own story in the same notebooks.
The cat, eventually named Kagaya-hime, suffers a catastrophe and must leave her home, losing her family and her fudoki. She encounters various people, ghosts, and kami, spirits of the land, one of which gives her advice, direction, and the shape of a human woman. She remains very much a cat in temperament, though, even when she joins a small party which leads her to a larger adventure, all the while lamenting the loss of her fudoki while Harueme tells us her own.
The noblewoman’s poignant stories, and her admitted desire to live vicariously through the heroine she is writing about, form an unusual and compelling narrative. Johnson’s writing more than does this complicated and lovely world justice. As elegant, structured, and beautiful as the ancient Japan she describes, her words illuminate the palace gardens Harueme sees and the peasants’ hovels where Kagaya-hime stays with equal brilliance. All of the characters are remarkably detailed in a few brush strokes; even with the unfamiliar Japanese names, I rarely needed a reminder about which character was which. And I felt I knew many of them as old friends by the time the book was over.
The device of a story-within-a-story does nothing to detract from the immediacy of Kagaya-hime’s story. Johnson wisely pulls the reader into the cat’s story first, then allows the author to show her own story without disengaging the other. To balance and pace the two is tricky, but Johnson manages it perfectly. The ending of both stories is both touching and exactly right, a rarity that is worth cherishing (though not rare in her books). Fudoki is what its title implies, the tale of a life, and you will not be sorry to read it, only to see it end.