A recurring theme in Nora Okja Keller’s Fox Girl is the Korean legend of the fox who wants to be a girl but cannot succeed, instead leaving only misery and heartache in its wake. Hyun Jin is Keller’s fox girl, a teenager suffering with a facial blemish that she feels makes her ugly, a mother who tells her she does not love her, and love-hate competitive relationships with best friend Sookie and Lobetto, a boy who pimps cigarettes and women for the America GIs.
Keller’s prose is sharp and fast-moving. She writes in English but also throws in Korean words without explaining them to the reader, making her characters sound more like real people as she tells Hyun Jin’s story. She also describes in detail what life in Korea must have been like to the children who had to live in the grasp of an occupied homeland post-wartime. Driven away from their families and dependent on each other for survival, Keller’s characters resemble modern day latch-key kids of America, raising each other without parental guidance or supervision in a world of pain and torment.
Keller’s use of sexuality, and the point-blank manners of Hyun Jin’s prostitution, may shock some readers but they are necessary descriptions. Keller does not want to draw a portrait of an ideal life for her characters, nor does she draw a world where there is absolutely no hope at all. It is a brutally honest world where one does what one must to survive.
Like the fox of Korean legend, Keller’s Fox Girl is many things at once: beautiful, graphic, enlightening, and hard to let go.