The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

lisa_mc's review

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A creepy psychological novel, an exploration of race, class and power, a window on history -- and all in about 200 pages, superbly written to boot. Set in 1978, "The Bay of Foxes" is about a young Ethiopian immigrant to France, Dawit -- living in squalor and lacking papers because he broke out of prison and fled the upheaval in his homeland -- who through a chance encounter in a Paris cafe takes up with a famous, much older writer, M. M. is smitten with Dawit -- or maybe just the idea of Dawit -- and invites him into her home, showers him with money and gifts, introduces him to her social circle. The child of nobility, Dawit is erudite, multilingual and well-educated, and soon charms M.'s friends and takes over her correspondence, even editing her work and posing as her on the phone. However, Dawit can't give M. the one thing she really wants from him: he's gay, not interested in being her lover. But he'll let her take it, and in return take her fine clothes and luxurious apartment.
"He speaks her language perfectly, but she does not know a word of his" -- this sums up the relationship between Dawit and M. She's rich, connected, older, white. He's penniless, lost, young, black. She has all the power -- almost all of it -- and she wields it.
When M. takes Dawit to her villa in Sardinia, on the Bay of Foxes, he falls in love, and must decide what to do from there.
Inevitable comparisons will be made between Dawit and Mr. Ripley -- Kohler nods to this by having one character reading a Patricia Highsmith novel -- but Dawit is not an unfeeling, amoral villain; he's a basically good person warped by horrible circumstances, who tries to rebuild his life and find himself. Kohler's present-tense writing moves at a good clip and kept me guessing. The story is gripping in a pit-of-the-stomach way -- it's hard not to sympathize with Dawit, even though he makes some very bad choices.

unabridgedchick's review

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Three things: 1) why did this book have to end?; 2) why is Sheila Kohler not sitting next to me telling me stories all the time?; and 3) why are Kohler's novels not all in my hands this very instant?

Four word review: I adored this book.

Set in the mid-1970s, the novel follows Dawit, a young Ethiopian exile in Paris.  After his family was brutally executed following the overthrow of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, Dawit was imprisoned and tortured. A guard who was once a childhood friend helps Dawit escape, and he crosses into France illegally, living at the margins, a displaced person dependent on the generosity of friends.  Born into a life of luxury, he has no skills as an illegal laborer, and when the story opens, Dawit is literally lingering over a coffee in a cafe, afraid to return to his friend's home without means, when he spots M.  M. is a famous French author, now in her 60s, notorious for her spare novels about her childhood love affair with a Somali man.  M. is immediately taken with Dawit, and in a matter of days, sweeps him into her life, clearly wanting to relieve her affair.

What seems like a Cinderella story, of course, dissolves into something darker.  As M.'s obsession with Dawit grows, he feels himself experiencing the same apprehension, fear, and tension he did while imprisoned in Ethiopia.  Feelings of gratitude transform into resentment.  As he grows healthier, bolder, stronger, M.'s need for him in her life grows as well, until --

You get the idea.  It's dark, twisted, gruesome, gorgeous, chilling, amusing, cowardly and heroic.  I closed the book in love with everyone, messed up as they are, captivated by the superficial and glamorous world of 1970s Paris, Sardinia, and Rome.  Pretty people, ugly secrets.

At 207 pages, this is a zippy fast read, but I lingered over this one because I didn't want it to end.  Kohler's writing is spare, like Duras', like M.'s, but there's so much impact between the words.  I was greatly reminded of Patricia Highsmith, right down to some of the plot elements, but found Kohler's homage to be delightful in its own right.

jeanettegtf's review

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mysterious fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated


Writing is promising, but characters fall flat into tropes. And it seems like the author got too committed to the plot, so instead of thinking of other alternatives, to keep momentum and character development going, the unrealistic plot takes over and the book falls flat. 

reader_fictions's review against another edition

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Originally posted here.

Before I started, all I had to go on was this brief description above and a blurb, which describes the novel as 'erotic.' With that in mind, I was really expecting something very different than what I found. I was expecting melodrama, but what I found was a sort of calm, spare prose, lovely and bare. I had no idea what The Bay of Foxes would be like or that I would enjoy it so much.

Personally, I would not describe this novel as erotic. Certainly, sex is a main theme of the novel, but there are no graphic, lurid, romanticized descriptions. I don't think this book is about living vicariously through Dawit's sex life. It's more about the impact sex has upon his life.

However, I suspect that this label may have been used as a way to scare some readers away and perhaps entice others. While the book isn't erotica, I imagine that it would offend a number of readers. This novel touches on issues that are tender for a number of people: torture, prostitution, and gay sex, for example. If you are easily offended, this book probably isn't for you. It's unashamedly dark and creepy.

Part of what intrigued me about this book before I read it was the comparison to Patricia Highsmith, which is on my version of the cover, although not pictured above. I've read a couple of Highsmith's novels and, though she may be incredibly insane, I really think few people can do creepy like she can. Well, Kohler definitely deserves the comparison to Highsmith. If you enjoyed The Talented Mr. Ripley or Strangers on a Train or some other Highsmith novel, you definitely should not miss checking out The Bay of Foxes.

Another awesome thing about The Bay of Foxes is getting to learn a little bit about Ethiopia. My knowledge of African history is extremely limited, so I was able to learn a lot even from the relatively brief references herein. I love seeing this diversity in the characters, as well. Also, look at this beautiful and not whitewashed cover!

The only thing that I was meh about was the ending, which does the thing where this book has actually been written and published by one of the characters thing. I have always hated this trope, mostly because I don't feel like it really adds anything to the story. Every time I read one that does that, I make the DUN DUN sound from Law & Order.

The Bay of Foxes is wonderful literary fiction, especially for readers that love twists and psychological thrillers.