At the dawn of the 20th century, in the wake of the bloody Boxer Rebellion, Cixi, China’s dowager empress, posed for a series of photographs rich with pomp and circumstance: she and ladies of her court dressed in brocaded finery, reenacting operas. The empress died in 1908, just prior to the rise of the Chinese Republic, and it’s in this year of flux and transition that bestselling author Yangsze Choo sets her lavish new novel, The Fox Wife (Holt, Feb. 2024).
“It was an interesting time at the end of China’s last continual dynasty,” Choo says via phone from her home in California’s Bay Area. The novel—about a shape-shifting fox spirit named Snow who is hunting for her daughter’s killer and whose story unfolds as Cixi’s own winds to a close—takes place in Manchuria, at a fulcrum moment when, Choo says, “ominous portents appear.” She adds, “The dowager empress was a controversial figure: some say she held China back, some say she was ahead of her time.”
And while she drew from history for The Fox Wife, Choo, who is a Malaysian of Chinese descent, also called upon ancient folklore and her own peripatetic youth to craft her story.
From an early age, Choo heard folk legends about the fox—a spirit who would visit unsuspecting victims to wreak havoc. The fox, she says, is wily, a trickster. They can be either gender: they’re often female, but occasionally a handsome man slips in and out of a fox’s body, preying on unsuspecting women and vanishing into the countryside.
When she was a child, Choo was also prone to vanishing. Her father worked in the foreign service, which led his family to move from country to country, including stints in Germany and Japan, scooping up scraps of new language and cultural mores. “We tagged along,” she says, adding that she felt like a perpetual outsider, much like her book’s protagonist. “I was always the new kid trying to figure it out. Does everyone bring their lunch? Does no one?”
In 1995, Choo matriculated at Harvard, and after graduation she landed a consulting job at Bain, based in the company’s Singapore and Boston offices. She carried a briefcase to look the part—a professional bona fide that now amuses her children—but spent evenings in her apartment indulging her writing hobby. She produced a portfolio of what she calls “dreadful” stories and a “terrible” novel.
Perhaps because of these early efforts, Choo is practical when it comes to writing as a career. All humans, she asserts, need some form of creative self-expression, from “needlepoint to fixing bikes to journaling.” But she remains firm in her advice to aspiring novelists and MFA hopefuls: “Don’t quit your day job—who will provide health insurance?”
Nonetheless, Choo persevered, discovering shelves of fiction anthologies in libraries, which served as instruction manuals for craft. And she kept writing.
“I am a very slow writer,” she says. “I was also working full-time, had kids, and then I spent eight years working on a terrible novel about an elephant detective. I struggled to wrest it into some semblance of a story, until I realized that one of the subplots about being married to a dead man belonged in a completely different book. That’s what turned into The Ghost Bride.”
And it was The Ghost Bride, a 2013 bestseller adapted for Netflix, that launched Choo’s career. Her 2019 follow-up, The Night Tiger, was selected by Reese Witherspoon for her book club. And The Fox Wife looks set to pick up where the previous two left off, with PW’s review stating, “Choo’s writing is lush and the slow revelation of complicated relationships and reunions hum with tension. This is a treat.”
As the cunning Snow assumes human form and vows vengeance for the death of her daughter, she scours northeastern China for the man responsible for the killing—a photographer named Bektu Nikan. She leaves a trail of corpses in her wake and eventually reaches Japan, along the way reuniting with another fox spirit, Kuro, the father of her child.
Meanwhile, a retired teacher and detective named Bao—a tribute to Bao Gong, a famous judge in Chinese antiquity and archetype of justice—investigates the murder of a courtesan whose body is dumped in a doorway. Some call it the handiwork of a fox; as Bao, who has the preternatural ability to discern lies, pursues the case, his fate becomes entwined with Snow’s.
While Bao is reminiscent of hardboiled protagonists such as Sam Spade, Choo is quick to point out that China has its own venerable tradition of detective fiction dating back to the Ming Dynasty. Her writing, she says, is also informed by a fascination with ghosts—much to her mother’s chagrin. “I’ve always been rabidly curious about elements of the unknown,” she says. “It drives me.” And it’s that speculative spark that propels the novel.
Despite the intricacy of her stories, Choo doesn’t write with an outline. Rather, she improvises, seeking threads that connect her chapters. “My process—I don’t know where it is going, but it builds from chapter to chapter,” she explains.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the origin of Bao. “He was a surprise!” she says. “I was working on chapter two and wrote the word detective and thought, who is this? He just appeared.”
The same was true of Snow: Choo had been playing around with point of view and shifted from third person to first. She recalls thinking, “Here’s my fox!”
As The Fox Wife concludes, it offers an elegy for empire. In the Forbidden City, the Dowager Empress dies: the curtain falls on a gilded age and a formidable woman, fox-like in her ability to beguile and wield power. A hundred miles away and reunited, Snow and Kuro mull their journey back to each other amid this uncertain moment in history.
“Far away, in the old Manchu capital of Mukden, discussions in teahouses and the villas of the rich strategized about what was to come next,” Choo writes. “In villages and hamlets, peasants continued trundling their goods to market in wheelbarrows, swarms of locusts ravaged the southwest and a three-year-old boy, Aisin Gioro Puyi, was installed as the likely last emperor of the Qing dynasty. ‘I don’t think that bodes well,’ said Kuro.” The statement foreshadows Puyi’s forced abdication at the age of six during the Xinhai Revolution.
For Choo, foxes are clearly spirit animals, and a favored literary device. “I had set my previous novels in Malaysia, but we don’t have any foxes, so I opted for northern China,” she says. “The beginning of the novel is the archetypal fox story—someone comes knocking at your door, and you open it. I was always interested in the other side of the door.”
Hamilton Cain is a book critic and author of the memoir This Boy’s Faith.