Book Review: Tiger

“Edit wanted, with all her heart, to protect her daughter. She wanted better for Zina than love”

Covering an expanse of over 6.6 million square miles, Russia is the world’s largest country by landmass. It includes nine different time zones and shares land borders with 14 neighboring countries. In the Amur region of the far east, forest wildernesses still exist, although they are always at risk from man’s desire to acquire personal wealth at whatever cost to the environment. Here the largest cat on earth, the Siberian tiger, still survives in his natural state. A king tiger will ruthlessly guard and patrol his territory of up to five hundred square miles, within which his females raise their cubs. It is one of the harshest habitats on earth.

Tiger, by Polly Clark, is an exploration of the cost of freedom. Following a prologue set in the Russian Taiga, where a hunter is trying to kill a tiger for its valuable pelt, the story introduces Frieda, an English academic who is researching the behaviour of captive bonobos. Frieda is a morphine addict, using the drug to help her cope with her fears following a vicious street attack several years ago. Frieda has been stealing the drug from her place of work and using it on the premises. She is about to suffer the consequences.

Disgraced but in need of work, Frieda moves to Devon where a privately run zoo requires a keeper. Here she encounters her first tiger, a lone male that is about to be offered a mate. The zoo has purchased a tigress from a Russian dealer. When it is delivered the creature is not as expected.

The second section of the book is based around Tomas who works on a Russian nature reserve in the Amur region. His father manages the venture and is eager to gain the attention of President Putin, who supports the protection of the wild tigers that roam the area. The reader is offered a view of life in the forest, the dangers encountered, and how changing political beliefs have affected the plunder of resources. Decisions made in Tomas’s past haunt him, and he blames his father for his current, lonely existence.

The third section tells the story of Edit, a young village girl living in the Udeghe region, whose grandfather was the local Shaman until such practices were outlawed by the Russians. She has been raised with the traditional stories and songs in which tigers were considered sacred. She is horrified when the man who hopes to marry her assists in the capture and killing of one of these magnificent beasts. Life, however, must go on and time, inevitably, passes. Edit understands that she must marry and is then expected to bear children. She longs for freedom.

Part four opens from the point of view of the tigers as they struggle to survive a particularly harsh winter. The various threads of the tale are then drawn together. There is poignancy and violence. There is cause and effect.

“The mice had changed the weasel’s story. How miraculous it was that all these journeys […] persisted alongside each other, each to be followed and understood separately. Each traversed its own world, with its own time, yet connected with the others at converging moments.”

In developing the various characters the author demonstrates how any action is rarely as simple as good or evil. Men long for a woman to ease their loneliness. They feel satisfied with themselves that they provide for and protect their family unit. Women desire an autonomy that is often beyond men’s comprehension.

“There wasn’t really a place for female things. Leyland was as trapped as everyone involved with tigers in the language of the masculine ideal – the nobility, courage, majesty, and so on, exhibited by the king.”

Yet this tale is more than some sort of feminist manifesto. The men suffer from cultural and personal expectation as much as the women. Love is longed for by all yet becomes a cage – a means of control requiring the surrender of liberty. There is a cost in accepting such captivity. There is also a cost if such strictures are rejected.

In all life situations there is hunter and there is prey; there is fear and there is a willingness to take risks for the rewards these bring.

The writing is taut and fluid. Subjects are explored with nuance and depth. However flawed the characters, they are drawn with empathy.

A thought provoking, engrossing and majestic read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, riverrun.


Book Review: Children of the Cave

Children of the Cave, by Virve Sammalkorpi (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah), is the first book in the latest Peirene series: There Be Monsters. Presented in the form of annotated and incomplete diary entries, it tells the story of an ill fated scientific expedition to a remote forested area in north west Russia.

Setting out from Paris in 1819, the leader of the group is Professor Jean Moltique, a controversial figure within the Académie des Sciences. His assistant, translator and author of the diaries is Iax Agolasky, a Russian born twenty-four year old eager to travel and work alongside a man he naively admires.

A year into the expedition the group comes across signs of life outside a cave. They set up camp and prepare to observe. What they encounter is a group of small creatures – not quite human yet not quite animal. The reactions of the various adventurers to this discovery lead to disagreements due to ethical issues. The arrogant Moltique pounces on the opportunity to present an exciting discovery to the scientific community. Agolasky is learning that sometimes facts will be bent to fit a preformed conclusion.

“I am surprised that an experienced and esteemed scientist like him, albeit one who is sensational and controversial, is not more critical of his own ideas.”

Agolasky succeeds in getting close to what are now referred to as the children. He no longer fully trusts Moltique but recognises that the professor is more likely to protect his research subjects than the other men in the group, who are described as rogues. They have their uses as labourers and hunters but have appetites that repel the young scholar who is more used to academic life.

“It is unfortunate, but the men who have ended up on this journey are better off outside the reach of officialdom.”

While Moltique is mulling over the best way to collate and present his findings, Agolasky is tasked with learning more about the strange creatures they are attempting to study. The children grow to trust him, something that places them in danger. Caught between the needs of these anomalous beings and his own people the young man struggles to stand up against Moltique’s stated plans.

“I fear his ambition blinds him.”

Agolasky notes in his diary that the professor sympathises most with the creatures that look most human, most like him.

The story builds around the attitudes of so called civilised society towards beings that are different from what is regarded as the norm. Given the way members of the expedition behave, the creatures’ looks are given precedence over their actions. Moltique’s theories require that they be animal yet he punishes those in his cohort who treat them as similar to the creatures they must feed on to survive. Agolasky now understands where the children came from but has neither the strength nor influence to fully protect them. He grows disillusioned with Moltique and at times in fear of his own life.

“To tell the truth I was impressed by the certainty with which the scientist I admired pursued the theory he desired. I could not help considering what the truth was about the yeti and his other achievements.”

The difficulties of living in an inhospitable forest take their toll as the years pass with Moltique still struggling to document his findings with any coherence. Meanwhile the other men in the group see a different potential for the children. Agolasky despairs at his ineffectiveness as events approach their inexorable conclusion.

The staccato style of writing serves to move the story forward quickly, offering snapshots of the changes taking place in each of the explorers. Their behaviour highlights the animal traits in all.

Although set two centuries ago this story has contemporary relevance. With fear of the other growing and swathes of society being dehumanised to protect the comfort of the privileged it is worth questioning the rights we grant humans, and how these are so inequitably enforced.

In many ways this is a disturbing read because of the truths it tells about man’s behaviour. Poignant and piercing, it is a story for our times.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: The Beauties

The Beauties, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater), is a collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories, presented in a beautifully bound edition of this esteemed writer’s work. The book is slightly smaller than a standard paperback with a textured cover, french flaps and clear print on quality paper. It is an ideal size and weight to carry and to hold. I mention these physical attributes as they are notably pleasing – fitting given the title.

The stories inside offer the reader insight into why Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of short fiction. They also provide a window into the mindset of the Russian people before mass industrialisation. There is cruelty and hypocrisy but also desire and a search for meaning. The private lives the characters live, their thoughts and aspirations, are timelessly relevent.

The collection opens with The Beauties, in which a schoolboy is travelling with his grandfather across the dusty steppe in summer, pausing for rest and refreshment at the home of a land worker. Here the boy meets a young woman whose unconventional beauty moves him, not with desire but a kind of sad longing that draws him, and the other men in the vicinity, to observe her every move. Several years later the boy, now a student, has a similar experience at a railway station. The imagery places the reader alongside the narrator as he recounts the feelings engendered by these encounters, the melancholy they create.

The Man In A Box tells the tale of a teacher whose habitual behaviour is regarded as odd by his aquaintances. When an additional teacher is sent to the village, bringing with him an unmarried sister, a plan is hatched.

“What a lot of things get done out of pure boredom, in the provinces – unnecessary, pointless things! […] I mean, why did we have to marry off Belikov all of a sudden, when you couldn’t even imagine him married?”

A Day In The Country depicts beauty in its knowledge and descriptions of plant and animal life. This contrasts with the harshness of the lives of the poor, who still manage small kindnesses. The man portrayed is unusual within this collection in not being entirely self-absorbed. He notices those in need and gives without fuss.

Several of the stories explore the temptations their married protagonists succumb to, even those who claim to regard their spouses with some affection. Being admired anew changes how both men and women view their families, the excitement of ardent attention proving hard to resist.

Marriage is presented in several stories as a restrictive burden, love as a feeling that is unlikely to last. In About Love parents try to trick a young suitor into accepting their daughter as his wife. In Grief a long married husband is fighting his way through a blizzard to get his wife to a doctor, driven by guilt and duty more than compassion. The beating of wives is commonplace. The casual cruelty meted out to animals upsetting to read.

The Bet is about man’s greed and egotism. During a drink fuelled debate, a wealthy banker challenges a young lawyer to endure fifteen years of solitary confinement in exchange for a hefty reward. Both men learn difficult truths about themselves as this time progresses. Their knowledge is unlikely to be put to use.

The final story, The Kiss, tells of an unassuming army officer who has no experience with women, and the effect on him of an accidental kiss. His outlook changes despite circumstances remaining the same. Hope is shown to be a powerful force.

The writing throughout is precise, almost simplistic, yet the insights offered have abiding depth. Few of the characters are wholly likeable yet they arouse a degree of empathy. These are snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens. They were a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The Last Summer


The Last Summer, by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is an epistolary thriller set in early twentieth century Russia. It is Peirene Title No 22 and the first offering in the publisher’s new East and West Series.

A challenge to the status quo by students has resulted in the governor of St Petersburg, Yegor von Rasimkara, closing the university. This controversial action has been countered by a threat to the governor’s life.

Yegor has withdrawn to his summer residence with his wife, the always anxious Lusinya, and their three children – Velya, their son, who is described as a handsome and droll young chap studying law in the hope of one day pursuing a diplomatic career; their two daughters, Jessika and Katya, are ‘sweet, blonde creatures’, although Katya retains a mind of her own.

“There is something childishly harmless about the family overall […] deep down they feel themselves to be alone in a world that belongs to them.”

The loyal servents are described as old-school Russians who still feel like serfs. They are joined by a new addition, Lyu, who is taken on as a bodyguard and secretary to Yegor in an attempt to mitigate Lusinya’s worries following the death threat. Unbeknown to them, Lyu is the rebel student’s chosen assassin.

Lyu is welcomed by the family adding depth and diversion to their daily discussions. The letters each writes to friends and wider family tell of first impressions, love interests and then growing disquiet at the developing situation. It is a fascinating study of how people react and their opinions change as experience colours perceptions.

Lyu gets to know the family and considers several means by which he may carry out his quest. Where his reconnaissance risks raising suspicion he finds the trusting family jump to conclusions he could not have predicted.

The novelty of a new mind to probe soon wanes and the family resume their own pursuits which Lyu seeks to influence. The audacious plan he settles on is not without risk. The family become caught up in the younger members’ attempt to further their education despite the university’s closure. They talk of aiding other students who do not enjoy their privileges which vexes their father.

The writing is taut and insightful laying bare how selfish individual outlooks tend to be. Other than Lyu, whose actions some may consider a necessary means to an end, the cast at first appears benign. Their actions, however, will have repercussions on the less fortunate. They think of helping only when it was of little trouble to them.

Despite the historical setting this story remains pertinent. It is also beautifully written, its points raised more powerful for their subtlety. The polite interactions tremble with undercurrents of suppressed emotion. In reading I became a part of the time and place.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.