Summary from Goodreads:
Set in the eighteenth century London underworld, this bawdy, genre-bending novel reimagines the life of thief and jailbreaker Jack Sheppard to tell a profound story about gender, love, and liberation.
Recently jilted and increasingly unhinged, Dr. Voth throws himself into his work, obsessively researching the life of Jack Sheppard, a legendary eighteenth century thief. No one knows Jack’s true story—his confessions have never been found. That is, until Dr. Voth discovers a mysterious stack of papers titled Confessions of the Fox.
Dated 1724, the manuscript tells the story of an orphan named P. Sold into servitude at twelve, P struggles for years with her desire to live as “Jack.” When P falls dizzyingly in love with Bess, a sex worker looking for freedom of her own, P begins to imagine a different life. Bess brings P into the London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with London’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of an oncoming plague abound. At last, P becomes Jack Sheppard, one of the most notorious—and most wanted—thieves in history.
Back in the present, Dr. Voth works feverishly day and night to authenticate the manuscript. But he’s not the only one who wants Jack’s story—and some people will do whatever it takes to get it. As both Jack and Voth are drawn into corruption and conspiracy, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined—and only a miracle will save them both.
An imaginative retelling of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Confessions of the Fox blends high-spirited adventure, subversive history, and provocative wit to animate forgotten histories and the extraordinary characters hidden within.
Confessions of the Fox snagged my attention in catalogs last year and I started trying to read it as a digital galley. However, the structure of Confessions of the Fox is such that it makes digital reading very hard – there are MANY footnotes – so I waited to pick up a hardcover to try and read it. And then I realized that it required some involved reading time given the nature of how the story is told. So I started this book several times before I finally parked my butt on the couch during 24 in 48 and read the entire thing in one sitting.
This. Book. Is. Wild.
The book opens with Dr. Voth, ostensibly telling the reader that the manuscript we are about to read was discovered as the university he works for emptied the stacks to make way for fancy administrative offices and that it is a ground-breaking work. The manuscript is purported to be the memoirs of one Jack Sheppard, a legendary outlaw in eighteenth-century London who serves as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera and Mack the Knife. As “Jack” tells his story, the details of his life twist away from known sources. In this source Jack is a transman and his girlfriend Bess refers to herself as “lascar,” making her a woman of South Asian descent. As the narrative shifts and twists it seems to grow beyond the page…but is it real? Is Jack a narrator we can trust? Or Bess?
In between Jack’s story we get two sets of footnotes: 1) the annotations made by Dr. Voth noting deviations in the text from known facts about Jack Sheppard and explanations of seventeenth-century slang and 2) Dr. Voth begins to narrate the absurd twists his life takes after his discovery of the manuscript. As a transman, Dr. Voth is deeply invested in a manuscript that, if authenticated, would bring a significant contribution to trans and queer literature and history. And it is this emotional connection to the manuscript that opens Dr. Voth to manipulation by less-than-savory sources. It creates a second narrative within a frame around the Jack Sheppard narrative.
Jordy Rosenberg has given us a novel that is at once a purported eighteenth-century memoir and a narrative that morphs into a rallying cry against the commoditization of bodies, of prison abolition, of anti-colonialism, of anti-racism, of trans self-determination. Surrounding this is a framing narrative in footnotes of the professor annotating this tale and his fight against a university increasingly beholden to shady corporate and pharmaceutical interests, veering from Sterne-ean to Vonnegut-like levels of absurdity. Confessions of the Fox is a very complex book but well-worth the read.
I will give a trigger warning for this book. There are several instances where cis characters express an intrusive (and in one instance, gross) interest in a transman’s genitalia. There is also a scene of a surgery that is very appropriate to the historical setting in its details. Given that Rosenberg is a professor of queer and gender theory as well as eighteenth-century literature, I think the subject matter and situations in this book were handled very well.
Dear FTC: I started reading a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss but wound up having to buy a copy because of the formatting.