Novelette review – What The Fox Brings In Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien

Homemade Weather book coverThe second novelette of Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes in Flash from Retreat West Books draws you into the life of a man who has gone awry. What The Fox Brings In Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien was awarded second place in Retreat West’s novelette-in-flash contest, judged by Damhnait Monaghan.

It begins with a scene of such contemplative observation that it would be easy to miss the significance of the word craving: “Another craving has brought him to the window and he is standing there with a cigarette when he sees it.”

The ‘it’ is a fox passing by with something in its jaws. This vivid visual serves as a metaphor for the entire novelette, where our protagonist drifts from being the fox to, more naturally it seems, being the helpless creature between the predator’s teeth.

None of the characters are named in this exquisitely melancholic novelette, hinting that in one unthinking moment we could find ourselves in such an existence. Snow, blood on snow, and leafless trees, are recurring images, emphasising the perilous wilderness at the edges of our everyday lives. At times, reading this, I felt physically cold.

It’s soon apparent that he has slipped off the rails that make us acceptable to most of society and become a man who mothers urge children to avert their eyes from. O’Brien’s description of his protagonist’s awareness of this is rich with empathy: “He had felt something like dull horror trapped behind glass, a clouded scream somewhere inside the brain.”

A later mention on the same page of “a sign that will lie that he is clean” clarifies the bleak situation, yet is written with such poetry that you feel the yearning beauty on the page as well as the pain. Just as the novelette opens with the protagonist watching a fox, so he continues to observe the lives passing him by: “The first commuters are arriving, heads down, hands stuffed into pockets as though holding down the change.”

Lockdown thins the commuters, making a bad situation worse.

The titles of each flash fiction earns its place, my favourite being the finely wrought: Manslaughter Is Muddy Water You Cannot Wash Your Hands With.”

Throughout, light flickers in memories of his daughter holding a buttercup under his chin, and the simple happiness of “sun on his skin.” None of that rivals the dark recollections of what he cannot undo.

In ‘Clean’, the penultimate story, we’re treated to a vision of what might have been, with luck and better choices, before the final flash ‘Watching for Foxes’ reveals how it all began for this boy become a man with “his usual spot in the space between the shuttered shops.”

O’Brien’s writing is skilfully balanced so that we’re drawn to the heart of the protagonist’s tale and emerge caring deeply about him, despite never knowing his name. Without being in the slightest bit didactic, the narrative urges us to bear in mind that every person we overlook has their own backstory. The drama here may be made up, but the demand for compassion is genuine and overwhelming in the best possible way.

Read my review of Homemade Weather by Tom O’Brien.

Read my review of The Impossibility of Wings by Donna K. Greenwood, the final novelette in Retreat West’s Anthology.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes in Flash is published by Retreat West and is available to buy from 

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