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The Suburban Timeshare: an urban fox novel

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by Albert Hillel

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This delightful story came to my attention almost by accident. I certainly didn't single it out for review because of its theme, which might be regarded as topical at a time when Parliament is actively considering the banning of fox hunting. Although, at 50,000 words, it may not be long enough for commercial publication as a novel, it is quite long enough to grab the reader's attention and keep hold of it - I was hooked after the first few paragraphs.

If it weren't for the human characters to whom half the action belongs, "The Suburban Timeshare" could almost be non-fiction. And, of course, it is intended as an instructional work. The author is a fox enthusiast who knows his stuff, and it is his deep emotional attachment to the subject that makes this such a compelling read. So much so that there were times when I found it hard to believe that it was an original work by an unpublished author. Surely someone should have spotted this remarkable story-telling talent long before now?

Nor does Mr Hillel, for all his love of the species, ever descend into sentimentality. The fox is depicted as a cold-blooded killer - one who sometimes even kills for pleasure, simply to hone his hunting skills - and yet not without the saving grace of recognition as an animal who is dependent on the ability to murder other animals in order to stay alive. In stunning prose, the phases of a fox cub's life are depicted in turn: the dependence on the mother vixen, the process of learning to kill or be killed, the gradual awareness of one's place in the fox hierarchy, loss of a parent, loss of virginity, and so on. The style is vivid and economical, with startling use of metaphor.

It isn't perfect. There are occasional errors - spelling, punctuation and typographical - which would, one imagines, have been eliminated in a printed version; but they are very occasional. A printed book might also have contained illustrations to add to the charm of the electronic version. But the fact that a book is given away free of charge over the Internet does not automatically mean that it is lacking in quality, as this piece of work so clearly demonstrates.

How does a human being manage to put himself so completely and so convincingly inside the skin of a "dumb" animal? I have no idea. It requires a degree of skill and understanding far beyond what most would-be writers possess. What makes it even more effective is the transference of human values and concepts onto the fox's biography in a way that, though sometimes incongruous, is never out of place: "In this way," writes Mr Hillel, "he was pushed bit by bit into the picturesque village of Styal, with its rows of Victorian workers cottages and cute Norcliffe Chapel, and beyond it, past the massive, water-driven Quarry Bank Mill."

The point the author is making is that the territory is equally the property of the people and of the foxes - and presumably also of the foxes' prey, though he wisely decides that this is not the place to treat the reader to a rat's view of the world. (I have no doubt that he could manage it if he chose to try.) In parallel with the fox biography, we discover more about the human residents of Hillside Drive and their, somewhat different, annual cycle: academic research and pottery-manufacturing in the winter, gardening in the summer.

One thing I loved was the understated humour - not confined to the humans in the book: "The vixen was a single mother but she now had a lover boy living in. According to DSS rules the welfare should stop. "

The other feature I particularly liked was the insight into the way in which the foxes view humans - the explanation for so much we fail to understand about animal behaviour:

"Big Daddy had found carcasses on this patch of grass since the start of the cold weather and knew whose property they were. But this was the first time he had seen the strange manner in which they were deposited. He would return during the night to raid the cache. By that time the Fat Man would have retired into his bright den where the sun seemed to shine even at night."

Na´ve? I don't think so.

The dialogue too, so often the downfall of the unpublished, is near-perfect, right down to the regional inflections of the humans - of whom, for me, Professor McBeath, the man who becomes so obsessed with understanding the foxes' psyche that he almost turns into one, is the most interesting. His life will go on longer than those of the foxes, and I feel the urge to get inside his living room, find out more about his relationship with his wife, and discover exactly what kind of research he is doing at the university.

By now, it will probably have something to do with foxes.


Footnote: Since the first appearance of this review, the book has been published as a paperback by Booksurge.  Good luck to it!



ISBN 1 59109 664 2    Published by Booksurge, 2003.
158pp, paperback       Retail price $12.99

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Review by Deborah Fisher

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