An elusive little novel about medicine, memory, and fox possession
Dr. Shun’ichi Shimamura, a young physician, is sent to the provinces to treat the scores of young women who appear to be suffering from fox possession. Shimamura, a bright, ambitious student, is flummoxed by the assignment: Why give credence to a superstitious belief out of Japanese folklore? It’s summer, it’s hot out, and all the young women turn out to have only “the most annoying diseases (dipsomania, cretinism, an ovarian abscess…).” But then Shimamura comes to the last patient. As he examines her, she begins to writhe and convulse; Shimamura can plainly see, moving beneath her skin, a fox. German writer Wunnicke’s (Missouri, 2010) second novel to appear in English is a marvel, a wonder—and deeply strange. After his fox excursions, Dr. Shimamura sets off to study in Europe. In Paris, he becomes acquainted with Dr. Charcot and his dubious work on hypnosis and hysteria. When afflicted, Charcot’s female patients—he parades them around in front of a lecture hall—bear a remarkable resemblance to the woman who’d been possessed by a fox. Oddly, in the midst of all this, Shimamura’s memory seems to be fading—particularly his memory of one crucial night with that last fox-possessed patient. In any case he goes on to meet other masters of early neurology and psychiatry (Freud and Breuer each make an appearance) before returning home. Ultimately Shimamura retires to a remote area where he waits for death. It is from this standpoint—a few decades after his European sojourn—that the rest of the novel is narrated. Shimamura is cared for by his wife, his mother, his wife’s mother, and a housemaid—no one can remember whether the housemaid was once a nurse or a patient herself. Gradually it emerges that Shimamura’s wife may be tampering with his memory, conducting little experiments of her own. What is real and what isn’t? What is superstition, what is medicine? Wunnicke’s sly novel offers a great deal of mystery and humor but no hard answers.
With her delicate prose, arch tone, and mischievous storytelling, Wunnicke proves herself a master of the form.