Polly Clark was known as a prize-winning poet long before she published her first novel, Larchfield, two years ago. A late start is rarely a bad thing for a novelist. Experience has been acquired and had time to mature in memory and that form of imagination that works on memories. Larchfield has a twin-track narrative, moving from a young poet who has come to live in Helensburgh to WH Auden, who taught at the independent school Larchfield 70 or more years previously. The two stories were neatly and convincingly blended, and the novel enjoyed critical success.
Tiger will doubtless – and deservedly – do so also, but will surely sell very well too. Tigers are box office. Think of The Life of Pi, which won the Booker, although Clark’s Tiger is more tigerish than Yann Martel’s ever was. This is made clear in the Prologue, set in the Siberian taiga, where a vodka-swigging hunter is trying to trap and kill a tiger.
Clark then switches to the English strand in her narrative. Dr Frieda Bloom is a primatologist observing and working with bonobos (apes smaller than chimpanzees and, to her, more appealing and interesting). She loses her job after suffering a terrible assault and turning to morphine, but her mentor gets her a job in a private zoo, somewhat shambolic but running successful breeding programmes. When a female tiger is acquired she is assigned to its care as an assistant to the head keeper. This is partly on account of her evident empathy with animals, partly because the proprietor’s violent, near-deranged son who identifies with tigers is in disgrace. The story of her gradual bonding with the tiger, Lena, is admirably done. Clark’s tigress is magnificent and terrifying. Frieda herself is not perhaps appealing. It’s bold to saddle yourself with a tiresome, self-pitying heroine, but Clark brings it off.
Part Two of the novel is set in Siberia and has a new principal character, Tomas, a conservationist who, like so many in his field, both responds to what Jack London recognized as “the Call of the Wild” and fears that, even in the deep forest of the taiga, the old order is crumbling. The king tiger has been killed by poachers and his mate now prowls the territory with her cub. They are hunted by a woman from one of the forest tribes and her daughter, and Tomas must protect the great beast. Clark’s description of the snowbound wilderness is excellent. Her depiction of the complicated relationship of man and beast is acute. While poachers may be greedy and acquisitive, there may also be a fellow-feeling between the two hunters – man and tiger.
At the same time the novel raises interesting questions from which it rather shies away. Is there a connection between Frieda’s empathy with her bonobos and developing empathy with Lena, the damaged tigress, and her neediness and incapacity to manage human relationships? Has she indeed turned to caring for animals because of her failure with people? The only person she cares for is her mentor Charlie, and she makes excessive demands on him.
There is nothing sentimental in Clark’s treatment of the relations between her human characters and the animals they care for. Nor does she shrink from showing that, no matter how dedicated to science and conservation they are, there is an unavoidable harshness in the confinement of animals in cages. There are scenes from which the more tender-hearted reader may choose to turn away. Clark shows us nature red in tooth and claw and human claws may be as sharp as a tiger’s.
Clark may have come to novel-writing in middle-age, but she is anything but a tyro. She writes a clear and vigorous prose. She is as comfortable with narrative as with description – not always the case with poets who turn to prose fiction. It says something for her skill that she eventually makes even her self-pitying Frieda acceptable, while her evocation of the terrifying wastes of the taiga and the grim horrors of a Siberian winter represents a real
and memorable achievement. The book will surely sell well; it deserves to do so. - Allan Massie
Tiger, by Polly Clark, riverrun, 422pp, £14.99