Tiger – Polly Clark

When I started the epic journey that is Tiger, I had no idea what to expect. Like one of the book’s central characters, primatologist Freida, I have always admired tigers, but in quite a one dimensional way – thinking of them primarily as instinctive, violent, powerful creatures – not necessarily qualities I’d have seen lending themselves well for depiction in fiction. I couldn’t anticipate how they would come to life in this format.

From the breathtaking prologue, it quickly became clear to me that I needn’t have worried myself with these questions. With Clark’s poetic prose and skill, I was in extremely safe hands and was about to experience a book in a way I had not before – for this is not a book you read, it is a book you experience. Following this striking introduction, the rest of the novel is structured through several sections set across different continents, with three central characters: Freida, a primatologist who has developed a strong bond with bonobos through her research, but has just taken up a new position as a zookeeper that takes her out of this comfort zone; Tomas, who is a Russian conservationist trying to protect tigers from the increasing threat of poachers; and Edit, a mother, drawing on her Undeghe heritage and teachings to survive and take care of her daughter Zina in the forest.

This novel is an epic and ambitious undertaking. The narratives sweep across different cultures, climates and characters. Parts of it draw on factual depictions of tigers and their behaviours which Clark has drawn from her own personal experiences as a zookeeper and trips to Siberia. But is grounded too in old Russian folklore and the innate and unwavering laws of the forest. Clark weaves it all together effortlessly and beautifully, largely through the central figure of the tiger – which at times stalks in the background, at others looms large – but is always there. The fourth and final narrative to me belongs entirely to the tigress – by this point the reader is ready to be immersed wholly into the mind, body and being of the tiger.

To me, the power of this novel lies in its pace. It steadily and confidently treads on, like a tiger stalking through the forest – always alert, instinctive, measured. It presses on like these natural hunters are driven by intuition, gut, senses, signs, hunger, survival. And just as in the movements of a tiger, there are moments of stillness, where as readers we sit in silent watching. There were several passages that I found simply phenomenal – the tigers, landscape and moments in time were so vividly described – they appeared before me like photographs, capturing exactly the look, feel, movement of the tigers.

I found that there were interesting parallels between the tigress and the female human characters, bringing a point of connection which for me cemented my new and profound respect for tigers. While tigers are often thought of as very masculine creatures, Clark explores qualities that connect these central women to the tigers – illuminating moments of human intuition and survival instincts, through themes of addiction, sacrifice, and motherhood. Humans and tigers weave in and out of each other’s narratives, occupying the same spaces, living by mother nature’s laws and changing power dynamics.

I was blown away by this novel. At one point one of the characters describes the world as “endlessly striped, with a white underbelly”, in which most people would see “emptiness, silence, the hostility of nature”, but in which others would see “a blank white page […] full of possibility”. Tiger certainly shows me the latter – the white blank pages have been expertly filled with Clark’s beautiful words to illuminate the majesty, beauty and magnificence of this creature before you.

Thank you very much to Quercus for the opportunity to read a proof of this novel. Tiger publishes on the 2nd May 2019 – please make sure you read it!

2 thoughts on “Tiger – Polly Clark

  1. Great review. I liked your point about the parallels between tigers and the female characters. Feminism seems to be a subtle thread running through the book.

    Liked by 1 person

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