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Confessions of the Fox

Review

Confessions of the Fox

If there’s one thing that scholars of history --- at least scholars of history in the past several decades or so --- have taught us, it’s that history is never just one story. Instead, it’s mutable and open to interpretation, often drastically different depending on whose story is being told --- and who’s doing the telling. That’s (part of) the premise behind Jordy Rosenberg’s thought-provoking yet broadly entertaining debut novel, CONFESSIONS OF THE FOX, which purports to be a manuscript about the escapades of the infamous 18th-century thief Jack Sheppard, but winds up being something else altogether.

Jack Sheppard was a folk hero who, along with his companion Bess, has been written about many times before (he was the inspiration for “Mack the Knife” in Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” among other works). His bold exploits --- especially his long-running feud with Constable Wild --- will be familiar to many students of the period. But it’s safe to say that Rosenberg’s version of events will be entirely new.

"...a ripping good yarn, more than worthy of the centuries-long tradition of stories about Jack and Bess but bringing their epic romance squarely into the 21st century."

The framing story here is that what readers are picking up is a previously undiscovered manuscript, picked up off a pile of discarded library books at an unnamed university (where the library’s collections are being jettisoned to make space for faculty lounges) by the narrator, Dr. Voth. On the verge of being suspended from his teaching job for playing Words with Friends during his office hours (which are invariably unattended by students), Dr. Voth sees the manuscript as an opportunity to engage in some original research and perhaps redeem his reputation as a scholar.

The narrator --- whose personal opinions and back stories are increasingly revealed through a series of lengthy footnotes to the “manuscript” --- doesn’t expect to feel a personal relationship to the figure at the heart of the manuscript he’s reading. But that’s exactly what he encounters --- especially when he realizes that in this seemingly authentic memoir, Jack was actually assigned female at birth and transitioned (be forewarned: the detailed scene of top surgery performed without anesthesia is not for the faint of heart) into the figure familiar from legend and lore.

Dr. Voth is also “a guy by design, not birth,” and immediately becomes intrigued by what in fact could be one of the first authentic trans memoirs. Making things even more intriguing, the manuscript makes it clear that Jack’s companion and partner in crime, Bess, was actually of South Asian descent. Placing race and gender at the center of this story changes everything, as the narrator discovers --- and he begins to feel that far more is at stake here than just his academic reputation.

CONFESSIONS OF THE FOX has so many layers and nuances that it’s hard to even know where to start writing about it. It’s a bawdy, postmodern historical novel, full of 18th-century sexual slang and playful thieves’ cant. In that way, it will appeal to fans of FINGERSMITH or THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE. It’s a book that recasts 18th-century London, putting narratives of queerness and race front and center in a way that might prompt readers to reevaluate what they thought they knew about London at this time. It’s also a brilliant send-up of academic writing and culture, as legitimate textual footnotes (with modern English translations of the aforementioned slang, actual references to bibliographic source material, etc.) gradually become enmeshed with a second narrative outlining what’s happening to the narrator and his epic struggle with the Dean of Surveillance.

Apart from what’s happening within the text, it’s worth noting that CONFESSIONS OF THE FOX is likely the first novel written by a trans man and edited by a non-binary editor, released by a major publishing house. And, finally, at the end of the day, it’s also a ripping good yarn, more than worthy of the centuries-long tradition of stories about Jack and Bess but bringing their epic romance squarely into the 21st century.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 6, 2018

Confessions of the Fox
by Jordy Rosenberg

  • Publication Date: June 26, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: One World
  • ISBN-10: 039959227X
  • ISBN-13: 9780399592270