As soon as I picked up Tiger by Polly Clark, being an animal-lover myself, I knew I was about to become engulfed in it.
Canadian-born writer Polly Clark is known for her literary masterpieces, and in turn she was no stranger to me. With her poetry collections winning the Eric Gregory Award, along with her debut novel Larchfield winning the MsLexia Novel Prize, Clark had a lot of expectations to live up to when I finally got my hands on Tiger.
Clark’s career was not always in literary. However, this only helped her novel more. Her previous job as a zookeeper at Edinburgh Zoo benefited the author’s narrative very clearly to the reader, and her commitment to the novel doesn’t end there. In winter of 2017, Clark set off on a research expedition to the corner of the taiga. She lived as Tomas – the protagonist of part 2 of the book – would have, tracking tigers, trying to capture them on film, all without proper sanitation and in conditions of -35C.
The first three parts follow Freida, Tomas and Edit, three different humans with three very different relationships with tigers. Finally, daringly, she ends the book with part 4, the story from the tiger’s perspective.
What stood out for me whilst reading Tiger is the consideration Clark has given this novel. This book transports you to another place and time. Polly Clark’s attention to detail whilst telling the story which crosses two continents, and two worlds – animal and human – is what makes this book so immersive. Her own experience is at the heart of the book, and whilst the characters remain fiction, the environments in which they exist seem completely real, you can imagine it like it was right in front of you.
Clark writes in a way that makes you feel what the characters are feeling. I found this particularly whilst reading in Edit’s story in part 3 –
“…Edit wondered if it was simply the case that a woman was never free, and it was to do with something more than whether or not she had a baby. To be free, you have to be able to see it. You have, in a way, to know it a little, even before you get there.”
In part 1, you feel the pain and trauma of Freida, in part 2 you feel the sorrow and guilt of Tomas, in part 3 you feel the struggle for independence but also burning fear of Edit and her daughter, Zina. Finally, in part 4, you not only feel but experience the survival instincts of a tiger.
When I read books I try relate to the characters, and the complex character development Clark manages to accomplish within 400-odd pages is incredible. It would be a hard task to find anyone who did not relate to at least what one of the characters is feeling, and I think as a writer that is what Clark strives to do and accomplishes.
Without giving too much away, Tiger is told in an exciting and satisfying order and structure (trust me, when you read the book you will understand). Her story manages to explore so many themes that are important to me in a book: love, tragedy, adventure and friendship. I think you know yourself when you have your hands on a good book if all you can think about is when you next have a free moment in your life to curl up in a corner and read it. And, for me, I could not wait for the next opportunity to escape to where the story would take me next. Would it be Torbet Zoo, the small Udeghe town, or the freezing cold Siberan forest?
Overall, Tiger managed to dodge my biggest pet-hate with regards to a book – leaving major questions unanswered. Some authors view leaving the reader guessing as keeping the story alive, adding mystery, but I find it immensely irritating for my brain is always far too involved in the story to have it cut short, ragged. Tiger does not do this. The novel’s ending tied everything together, with little to no loose ends left hanging. The story is fast-paced, exciting and adventurous, narrated in a fresh and terrific way and astonishingly well-researched. Polly Clark has done it again, another award-winner for sure.
Tiger is available now, published by riverrun.