Title: The Bay of Foxes
Author: Sheila Kohler
Published: 26 June 2012
Publisher: Penguin Books USA
Genre: drama, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Dawit is an Ethiopian refugee living in Paris in 1978 after having escaped torture and imprisonment under the violent, oppressive rule of the Derg. He has no money, no job, and no visa, so he lives in fear of being caught by the police and deported. Then one day in a café he sees M., “that rarest of writers, a literary best-selling one.” Dawit – a well-educated aristocrat – has always admired her work. She’s in her sixties now, and her face is ravaged by both age and alcoholism, yet he still finds her beautiful. He goes over to speak to her, and they strike up a conversation.
M. is clearly enraptured by the stunning, young Dawit and invites him to stay with her in her luxurious, spacious apartment overlooking the Luxemborg gardens. Dawit eagerly grabs hold of this opportunity. He’s been living in a cramped apartment in the ghetto with many other Ethiopians, and appreciates the luxury of having his own room at M.’s place. More importantly, he’s no longer has to worry about starving.
However, this is a strange arrangement, and as you can imagine their relationship is disturbing from the start. For a while, Dawit does nothing and barely even sees M., since she spends most of her time locked in her room, writing. He wonders what her motives could be, but there are no prizes for guessing what she wants from him. M. uses Dawit for inspiration, ideas, and shows him off to her friends like a living African artefact. Obsessed with Dawit’s youth and beauty, M. clearly expects their relationship to become sexual, but unfortunately – for both of them – Dawit is gay. It’s unfortunate for Dawit, because he is almost powerless here. M. provides him with everything – a home, food, designer clothes (Hermès, Armani). With his excellent French, he eventually starts to do secretarial and editorial work for her, so she pays him a monthly stipend. She even secures a tourist visa for him so that they can travel to her villa at The Bay of Foxes in Sardinia.
M. holds the power of wealth over Dawit, and unless he’s willing to live in fear and poverty again, he has to put up with patronising racism and can’t raise many complaints when the old woman comes into his room at night, switching on the light to watch him sleep naked, or crawling into bed with him. His life with M. actually reminds Dawit of his imprisonment in Ethiopia. The guards would also leave the light on, making it impossible for him to sleep, and like M. they could enter his cell whenever they wanted and do what they wanted with his body.
Dawit is at M.’s mercy, but in this case his imprisonment is cushioned by wealth, comfort and safety, so it’s not hard to understand why he stays. He also picks up some useful skills and information. As M.’s secretary, he takes care of all her correspondence and to do so he learns to impersonate her – she teaches him her signature, so that he can answer her letters and sign documents; he learns to imitate her rough, masculine voice so that he can take phone calls for her. They’re both very tall and skinny, and because she sometimes buys men’s or unisex clothing, he initially wears her pants suits and shoes. She calls him her “very young and dark double” and is amused by this comparison.
From here, it wasn’t difficult for me to see where the story was going. Although I can’t think of any specific examples, I’m pretty sure I’ve come across some version of this tale before. It also parallels Kohler’s earlier novel Cracks in several ways. Predictable as it is though, it’s not too bad. I like novels that intimately explore strange, manipulative relationships, and the psychology of obsession. The Bay of Foxes is also detailed and well written in a way that I find engaging even though there are no surprises. When Dawit speaks of M.’s work, he says he “does admire her spare, concentrated prose, her brief evocative novels” and I wondered if Kohler was using a description of her own work here; I’d say that’s an excellent way to describe my feelings about the two novels of hers that I’ve read so far.
The Bay of Foxes didn’t explore Ethiopian culture as much as I’d hoped (if you strip away a few names and details, Dawit could be from any number of countries), but I suppose this novel isn’t really about Dawit as an Ethiopian, but rather about the relationship between a disempowered young African man and an old, rich, white European woman. I don’t like the use of ‘African’ as a blanket term since the continent is so vast and diverse, but in this novel it doesn’t matter that Dawit is Ethiopian – to the French, the Italians and perhaps even to himself, he’s an African, a black man.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending though. It’s not unsatisfying (although I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers feel otherwise), but it’s a tad… convenient? Dawit is trapped in a difficult situation, but the most likely conclusion would, in some ways, be unjust and displeasing to the reader. Instead, Kohler smoothes everything over in a way that’s more palatable but doesn’t feel quite right. I can’t say much more of course, but I’d be interested to know what others think. All in all, a good, quick literary read, if a little predictable.
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