The first time I saw this available on NetGalley, I clicked right past it. The blurb sounded intriguing (I do love stories about the “underbelly” of society) but I try to only request from NetGalley when something truly strikes me, so that my TBR there doesn’t get too backed up. However, right after that, I saw someone rave about it on bookstagram (I need to starting writing these accounts down when they inspire me, so I can remember who to credit later). Included in that rave was a note about how it really gives voice to a very marginalized voice, both historically and today. Well, I’ve been trying to branch out my representation in reading…so that, combined with the original intriguing synopsis, pushed me over the edge. And here we are. Although I missed the chance to actually publish this review prior to official publication (this is why I try not to request on NatGalley too much – it’s so easy to get buried!), I hope you’ll forgive the tardiness.
“The body does not pre-exist love, but is cast in its fires.”
Confessions of the Fox is a vibrant historical fiction centered around the life of Jack Sheppard. Sold into servitude as a child, P spends years imagining a different life; one not only of freedom from indenture, but freedom of body and identity. When P meets and falls in love with Bess, a prostitute (or doxy, in the lingo of the book), she is pulled into the London underworld, transiting into a life as Jack Sheppard, the famous goal-breaker and thief extraordinaire, the person that has she’s always had hidden inside and felt she truly was. Throughout the novel, Jack and Bess get into a number of scrapes and adventures together, all while illuminating a history that has long been cis-white-washed, and learning to love themselves and each other along the way. As an added layer the entire story is rife with footnotes from Dr. Voth, the contemporary academic who found this transcript and is translating for us, the reader. His notes on/additions to the text, as well as the commentary related to his personal life, provide perspective to and parallel Jack’s story a way that makes for a much more profound reading experience.
First and foremost, I need to spoiler alert that this is the most fantastically bawdy book I’ve read in some time. And that is probably an understatement. The terms for body parts, sexual acts, and more are tossed about often and colorfully. The sheer volume of them was almost mind-boggling (in a good way). At times, since things are mostly described in historical vocabulary, there were euphemisms that had me laughing out loud. So it’s a different kind of bawdy than a typical romance novel, but definitely one of the most defining pieces of the book. Moving past that surface lewdness, this was actually a phenomenally intellectual novel. In fact, for full disclosure, there were a few times that the more philosophical explorations lost me a bit. This could be as a result of me skimming them, which is a bad habit I have when reading, or because I was reading this novel on a plane and was quite tired at times, or just simply because these discussions were truly over my head. Regardless, the amount of research involved in writing this book was clear throughout – prodigious and impressive.
The mix of these two types of styles, academic and vulgar, might seem like an odd pairing, but it works wonderfully in this case. Since one of the main topics of the story, for Jack, for our translator Dr. Voth, and in the dramatic encounters/struggles experienced by them both, is based in gender identity, it really makes sense. The philosophy behind gender identity, the individual right to feel the way you want about who you are and the ability to present that intrinsic persona to the world in whatever way you want, is something incredibly internal. The intellectual side of the writing represents that personal/inner piece. On the other hand, there is the coarse language of the London underbelly, which is all about the physical and the sexual, which is the side of gender identity that is less…pretty? And I do not mean that in regards to looks or as a judgement on the physical appearance of any gender-non-conforming person. I mean that to refer to the way gender identity is treated by society, in the way that anyone who identifies as queer, transgender, or is intersex, has always been considered “less.” And, with those last two, the obvious connection between crudity and the gross fascination of the cis- population with the body parts of transgender and/or intersex people is addressed head-on throughout the novel (and expertly handled, may I add). It’s horrifying and terrible, but it is historically (and presently) accurate. And of course, the interplay between the two, internal/academic and external/vulgar, is difficult, stress-inducing (to say the least) and otherwise, exemplary of the struggles faced daily by anyone identifying as queer. This novel tackles an incredible breadth of difficult topics and themes in a proficient and remarkable way.
I don’t know if most people read the afterwards, but this is one book where I highly recommend it. The author talks through the extensive research and work that went into this novel, both on his own and collaboratively. Particularly of note is his discussion about his goal of shining a light on the parts of history that are completely, as I mentioned earlier, cis-white-washed, and providing a history to people today that have truly never had one for themselves. I realize that’s pretty much all of history (which he mentions as well), but this novel is definitely a beautiful start at working to combat that. Although this topic comes up throughout the novel in Dr. Voth’s footnotes, the author really elaborates and connects it to “real” life in the afterward. It’s an inspiring and moving reflection and I appreciate both it, and the author’s efforts, from the bottom of my soul.
Overall, this novel is a gorgeous piece of writing. One that it is clear the author poured his all into. It’s fully realized, exceptionally thoughtful, and beyond significant. Although, as I mentioned, at times the philosophy itself got to be a bit too much for me, the action and emotion are both omnipresent enough to balance that out, and I found this book both page-turning-ly enjoyable and thoroughly educational. As the story builds to the denouement, both in the past and the present, we are left with an ending that, for both, serves as a magnificent metaphor for the joy and relief of finding a place where you belong, are accepted, and can be your true self. Everyone, EVERYONE, deserves that.
Let’s not talk about how many things I highlighted while reading (SO MANY). Enjoy this selection:
“There are some things you can only see through tears.”
“There are moments that do not arise as the result of Conscious determination or thought. Such moments – far more than plann’d ones – are those that shape the course of a Life to come. Such moments alter a being in ways that plotting, synthesizing, and future-izing can never do. That is to say, a reaction to Chance is the only method for developing character.”
“They take everything from you. Even your imagination. Then and now.”
“Whatever Blur he’s lived in for every year and every moment up to this one, was lifting and sparkling into Nothingness like fog in the sun. All of Jack’s molecules were scrambled and rearranged, and something new was taking shape. Someone new. He was becoming Jack Sheppard. He was entering History.”
“And then he fell into sleep Unseen. As he did every night. Every single night, like a Pebble falling silently to the bottom of a dark Pond. Alone. Alone. Always alone.”
“Why couldn’t his own Ceiling change color, deepen, shoot through the sun? … Would the black-capped horizon of his Imagination never prism into color?”
“…would spray out of him, would fog the room with a million crimson Petals, with a wave of soft silver gunshot, with a rolling meadow of grass-green fire, heaving under them and pouring over them and it would bury them, in the best ways, together, and alive.”
“I’m editing this for us – those of us who’ve been dropped from some moonless sky to wander the world. Those of us who have to guess – wrongly over and over (until we get it right? Please god) – what a “home” might feel like. So forget the held ones just for a second, they’re doing fine; I’m speaking to you – to us – to those of us who learned at a young age never to turn around, never to look back at the nothing that’s there to catch us when we fall.”
“Sometimes – albeit rarely – but especially when one is young, Revelry is the verso face of misery and Terror.”
“She breathed life down my throat – she with the tip of her tongue, like a Hummingbird giving syrup back to the flavor – and just as some flowers open only at night, as did I open only with her tongue in my mouth.”
“None of us will be free unless all of us are free.”
“Robbers, Rebels, Lovers. Wait. Wait under waters she said. History will find us. History will avenge us all.”
“When a woman regards you with her inevitable Expression – the one that says: I’m waiting for you in the future; catch up, catch up – you will liberate yourself from every pre-existing bond, body, and name you ever had. And go with her.”
“There is no trans body, no body at all – no memoir, no confessions, no singular story of “you” or anyone – outside this broad and awful legacy. So when they ask you for our story – when they want to sell it – we don’t let them forget. Slavery, surveillers, settlers and their shadows.”
“In the name of those who came before, who fought the police; those whose names we know, and those whose names we can never know. In the name of those who came after, who will never know our names –”