Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

Is it so terrible, do you think, that I might have, just might have said yes to a review pitch for The Bay of Foxes simply because I fell in love with the cover that is just so right on several levels?  I mean, look at it, it cries out for reading!  Sure, the summary sounded decent, but it's the cover I really fell in love with.  Do you do such things?  Am I the only one?  Should I get serious now and write the review? ;-)

It's 1978, and Dawit has escaped prison and torture in his home country of Ethiopia only to become a destitute shadow hovering on the edges of Paris.  The well-educated son of an advisor to former Ethiopian royalty, Dawit is ill-equipped for life as a refugee in Europe where the best job he can hope for is the manual labor that he is not strong enough to do.  Haunted by memories of an idyllic childhood shattered when he grows to be a young man whose parents were killed with the falling of the monarchy, Dawit's life has declined into hunger and hopelessness, that is, until a chance encounter in a cafe with the famous author, M.

M., having heard Dawit's story and been reminded of the lost African lover of her youth, is determined to take Dawit in, and so she does.  She clothes him in her own expensive clothes, and allows him to work for her, answering her calls and her mail, until he finds that he can easily slip into her very identity.  She takes him from Paris to her summer home on the Italian Bay of Foxes, where he is reminded yet more of his homeland, and the two slip into an easy routine of writing, eating, and luxury.  But M.'s charity is not without its cost, and it's a cost Dawit finds himself unwilling to pay. However, going from poverty to luxury and back is not a journey Dawit is willing to take again, and his desperation to cling to his new life has disastrous consequences.

Kohler's writing is spare but creates just the right amount of surreality that seems to belong to Dawit and M.'s odd arrangement.  Readers can sense the rain outside the elegant apartment in Paris and feel the bright sunlight off the bay in Italy.  In Kohler's story, reality is turned slightly askew as Dawit's memories of prison and torture are held in contrast to his rather too good to be true rescue by M.  Kohler perfectly captures his twisted feelings about a life where the cost of a dinner for one could feed an apartment full of destitute refugees, gratefulness for this unexpected and unwarranted turn of good fortune, and desperation to cling to M.'s way of life without sacrificing himself to M.'s will. 

The Bay of Foxes is a story that seems impossible and possible at the same time, and it is unquestionably eerie watching as Dawit begins to transform himself into a better version of M.  There's a little of The Talented Mr. Ripley here and also a taste of Crime and Punishment.  Unfortunately, though, I wasn't blown away by this book. None of the characters are particularly likeable. Even Dawit, whose story is one of tragedy, fails to elicit the kind of sympathy one would expect.  It's a literary thriller, not fast-paced but with that slow-burning eeriness to it, and the whole situation upon which the novel is based hangs on the hairy edge of believability.  At the end of the day, though, it's Kohler's beautiful prose that seems to call paradise into existence at the same time as it plumbs the depths of the human psyche that will keep readers entranced and make The Bay of Foxes worth reading.

(Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.  Thanks!)


  1. I won this book in a giveaway. Haven't gotten a chance to read it yet but your review has me looking forward to it. Even if the characters aren't like-able.

  2. I'm pulled in by great covers all the time. It sounds like this book lives up to it.

  3. Great covers only enhance a book, in my opinion. And yes, my shelves are books I selected purely because the covers were so awesome. Glad you enjoyed it!

  4. I've been meaning to get to this one --sounds good to me.

  5. I fall in love with covers all the time :-) Nothing wrong with it, I say!