THE TIGER : A TRUE STORY OF VENGEANCE AND SURVIVAL by John Vaillant
In 1997, in the far eastern reaches of Russia, where it borders with China and just a hop, step and jump from Japan, in other words as far from Moscow as you could possibly get, a tiger began hunting humans, killing them in a particularly brutal fashion and leaving so few remains they were able to fit into a shirt pocket. Tigers, of course, have hunted prey and killed for hunger since time immemorial, much the same as humans have, but with a difference. The difference is that humans no longer hunt to survive but to satisfy demand for furs, and the so-called life giving properties of the various body parts - for example paws, penises, blood. In fact, in his research the author tells us that in the past tigers and humans have lived side by side, even sharing kills. Things would appear to have gone badly awry in the past few millennium for this relationship to no longer exist. So has the tiger finally decided to seek revenge?
The story of the hunt for the tiger is actually only a small part of this book. What the author has been very successful in doing is teaching us about a whole raft of things we would never usually have learnt about. Not only about the magnificence of the tiger and its history in this remote, bleak, impoverished and rapidly reducing forest region, but of the people who live in these communities, their histories, the effects of policies and politicians in Moscow whose decisions have really no relevance at all on this region. Stalin, Peretroiska, and capitalism, economic expansion have all wrought absolute havoc on this part of Russia as it has on many other parts. Other parts of Russia, however do not have the Amur or Siberian tiger - up to 10 feet/3 metres long and 500lbs/225kgs, its food source dwindling as the forests are chopped down for export to China, poachers an ever-permanent threat to them and other forest creatures. Hardly any wonder the tiger is out for revenge.
Most interesting are the people in these small desolate communities - those trying to eke out a living - hunters, poachers, their wives and families, plus the tracking team commissioned to hunt down and kill the tiger before he wroughts any more havoc. All I can say is I am glad I don't live in this bleak part of the world, beautiful it may be.
The author has brilliantly amalgamated all this material into a spell-binding true story. I can't really figure out how it all comes together, as there is so much material, but it does. The last chapters have an inevitability about them, but it doesn't detract from the importance of the message that humankind and rampant consumerism is responsible for the near-extinction of the tiger, the destruction of its habitat and its fight back. I actually thought the book was going to be more about tigers rather than Russia, but it didn't matter at all. Highly recommended for anyone interested in conservation issues, wildlife and social/economic history.
HAND ME DOWN WORLD by Lloyd Jones
Did you read Mr Pip, Mr Jones' 2007 novel that was short listed for the Man Booker? Having read the winner of that year's competition I still can't understand how 'The Gathering' won it. But never mind. Moving on. So, after reading this new novel, you ask yourself how on earth does a white, middle aged, literary man from little old New Zealand at the bottom of the world, somehow create such characters as Mathilda in Mr Pip (teenage girl, growing up in a Pacific Is village, being immersed in the literature of Dickens, then dealing with the blackness and evil of an invasion), and in this story, Ines (young black African woman, desperately seeking her lost child). And what's more, manages to tell the story from their points of view rather than in the third person? The one thing I particularly remember from Mr Pip, was how true he was able to make Mathilda, how he got inside the head and soul of a young girl. Which is also very striking in this novel, it is almost as if he is the character that he has created. The second very striking thing about Mr Jones is that he is primarily a story teller. I would love to be a child of this man, and listen each bed time to the marvellous stories and weaving of characters he creates, to send me off to sleep. This novel is also such a great story.
But don't think that Mr Pip or this story are lovely. They are not, quite the opposite.
Ines, as we come to know her by, is a young African woman working as a hotel supervisor in a Tunisia hotel. Seduced by a German guest, she bears a child, which is ruthlessly taken off her by the father and his wife and whisked back to Germany. Instead of self-destructing, Ines then sets about making her way to Berlin in a bid to get the child back. The single minded determination of a mother's love is the one thing that keeps Ines going. In the course of her story there are many opportunities and times to simply give up, but she just keeps on keeping on, heading north, scraping money, lying and deceiving to find her child. This is the one constant through the story as Ines deals with people traffickers, near drowning, a sleazy truck driver, learning to trust the strangers she meets and then more often than not abusing that trust. Quite remarkable really.
The story is not actually told through Ines' eyes till the last third and then it expands and elaborates on the previous two thirds, which is told through the voices of the people she comes into contact with along the way - a fellow hotel worker, the variety of people she meets on the journey to Berlin, the young man she hooks up with once there, and the blind man who employs her to be his eyes and carer.
I found it quite a fascinating way to read a book. As each person narrates their encounter with Ines we build up a picture of what she is like, and as such she encompasses the entirety of a human being - compassion, love, courage, ruthlessness, selfishness, sacrifice, hope, determination, and ultimately survival at all costs. Until finally of course we meet Ines herself at the end of the journey she has so far been on, and maybe the beginning of the next stage in her remarkable life.
I am surprised how much I enjoyed this book. I loved Mr Pip so much, I almost didn't think something could be as good. But this is, in an entirely different way. When it was published the reviews were many and various. Interestingly the reviews by men were less supportive of the story than those written by women. I can't help but wonder that maybe men perhaps feel uncomfortable with such a story about a woman being told by a man. Maybe I am reading too much into it...
Mr Jones wrote this story while on a year's writer's residency in Berlin over 2007-08. From reading this story, the city would appear to have left a mark on him as the city is as much a character in the book as Ines, Bernard and Ralf are. I want to go there now myself! Another place for the list...
OTHER PEOPLE'S MONEY by Justin Cartwright
This is the second book I have read by this South African born, London living author. I read 'To Heaven By Water' earlier in the year and enjoyed it very much. So when this one was put into book club, only published this year, I snapped it up. And it is even better than the first one I read. I have also found out via Google that this book has just won the Novel of the Year in the Spear's 3rd Annual Book Awards. Who might you ask is Spears? "Spear’s is the multi-award-winning wealth management and luxury lifestyle media brand whose flagship magazine has become a must-read for the ultra-high-net- worth (UHNW) community." (Taken from the Spear's website). So I find it both amusing and ironical that this novel which is essentially an attack on the international banking scene should receive such an award. Unless of course they are all trying to have a good old laugh at themselves. Maybe in light of events in the last 3 years or so, they need a good old laugh. The monied characters in this book, however, do take themselves and their lifestyles very seriously; I can't imagine them laughing at all at the predicament they find themselves in!
Julian Trevelyan-Tubal is, I think, the eleventh generation to be running the privately owned, 340 year old upper-crust banking institution that is known as Tubal and Co. Technically his father is still in charge. But Sir Harry has recently suffered a very serious stroke, is living at the family beach house in Antibes, and failing fast. Julian and his trusty lieutenant, Nigel, have in the past few years, and against Sir Harry's modus operandi, been investing and operating heavily in a variety of high risk hedge funds. With the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage and derivatives market, which was essentially gambling on price rises of ethereal, paper based assets, Tubal and Co is now in very big trouble. Julian and Nigel have come up with a way that floats somewhere between marginally legal/marginally illegal to save the bank - a rearrangement of figures. I still don't entirely know what exactly is legal or illegal about what they were doing - it seems to be something along the lines of borrowing off Peter to repay Paul, but this sort of fine detail has little bearing on the story or the enjoyment of reading it. I wonder if the author truly understands it himself as in his acknowledgements he writes "I have taken advice on banking and how it works, but I have decided not to name any of those I consulted". Very intriguing and amusing.
At the same time as these two gents are rebalancing the books, they are also trying to sell the bank to a large American bank. Julian's heart was never in becoming a banker, but he was forced to step up when years earlier the older son, Simon, simply refused to do it and ran off to Africa. As you do. In fact Simon is probably the only member of this family to have any sense at all, and although ridiculed within the family certainly has the sympathy and understanding of the reader. Naturally the family is unaware of the impending crisis. The only certainties are the impending death of Sir Harry and the purchase by the Americans, but at what price.
Meanwhile, in a small town in Cornwall, lives the ex-husband of Sir Harry's second wife Fleur. Since Fleur ran off with Sir Harry some 24 years prior, Artair Macleod has received a quarterly payment from one of the bank trusts. This is his prime income, and enables him to pursue his varied career as a playwright and producer/director of, amongst other things, Thomas the Tank Engine re runs for the local community. Suddenly one day, his quarterly payment is not in his bank account as expected and so begins the exposure of Tubal and Co's current financial situation. This occurs via the local newspaper whose aging editor lost his entire pension fund when working for Robert Maxwell and so has a particular hatred for those who mismanage other people's money.
The author does not appear to like the monied classes at all, taking a very dim view of the smallness and emptiness of their world, and exploitation of others for their own gain. To a certain extent the Trevelyan-Tubal family members and their hangers-on are caricatures, but nevertheless he writes in such a way that the reader does feel some empathy, only some mind you, to them. Fleur for example, came from nothing, and once Sir Harry dies, knows she will go back to nothing, but it will be a very rich nothing!
This is a terrific story, almost thriller like in its development and pace, but also a very wry social commentary. Much like Sebastian Faulkes' 'A Week in December' it can be seen as a parable of our times. Both entertaining and thought provoking, it does make me glad not to have been born into vast quantities of money and have to live in the gilded cage as a result. Just goes to show money cannot buy happiness, but does make for some jolly good stories. And for those who like Cornish pasties, you will be pleased to know that since this book was published earlier in the year, the European Commission finally granted "Protected Geographical Indication" (PGI) status to genuine Cornish pasties. Now you really do have to read the book to find out more.
NEVER FAR FROM NOWHERE by Andrea Levy
This is Andrea Levy's second book, written way back in 1996 and before the success of 'Small Island'. The themes are very similar - immigrants from Jamaica trying to find their feet in an alien society, and yet also trying to maintain their own cultural identity amidst prejudice and the struggle to make a living. This very insightful novel is set in 1970s London on a council estate, and revolves around the lives of two teenage sisters, Olive and Vivien. The girls are first generation English-born, of Carribean descent. Their parents migrated from Jamaica to London in the hope of improving their lives and and that of their children. But like many migrant families to England, the transition is not easy, the desired standard of living is never really achieved, and surrounded by prejudice many people are made to feel like second class citizens. For the girls there is the added complication of being teenagers with the pressures that brings on schooling, parent expectations and peer pressure.
So far so good, and plenty of rich material for a writer to work with. The story becomes that much edgier with the revelation on page two that the sisters are as different as they could possibly be and these differences really dictate how the lives of the girls turn out, or could turn out. Olive is the elder of the two by three years, but is a shade or two darker in colour, and with frizzier hair than her sister having inherited more of the African gene from her father. Vivien has inherited less of the African gene, and more of the Spanish/Indian features of her mother: so fairer complexion and wavy black hair. This is all complicated by the fact that the mother has never really seen herself as a 'black' person and consequently passes this very mixed message onto her two girls with the result that the girls don't really know what they are, but know that being black is not as desirable in their world as being less black. Hence Vivien has a much easier passage through the teen years than her sister does.
The author uses these essential differences between the two girls as the driver of her story and very effective it is. Olive is smart, feisty, independent and wants to leave the apron strings as soon as possible. Vivien on the other hand, also a smart girl is more interested in fitting in with the white crowd she finds herself in, to the extent that she refuses to admit she is of Jamaican descent, telling people she is from Mauritius. It all falls apart of course when her friends finally meet Olive! Vivien realises fairly early on that to get ahead and get on in the English world, she has to do well at school and go to university which she does. Although according to Olive, her sister will never be fully accepted by the white world, simply because she is not white, and thus she will end up 'Never Far from Nowhere'.
And this is probably the essential theme of this book - even though we always deny how much we judge by initial appearances and impressions, the author is very firmly in the camp that actually this is exactly what we do - first impressions count big time.
For this reason it is a very bitter sweet story. The girls are both great characters and it is the mark of a good writer that she can make the reader feel empathy for the girls and frustration over some of the things they end up doing. The differences between the two and the paths their lives take is accentuated by Olive and Vivien narrating alternate chapters. The chapters are also kept very short so the reader does not really have time to get into Olive's world before turning the page into Vivien's world. The one thing I did notice is that the only black people in the whole story are the girls and their parents. Living on a London council estate, I would have thought there would be neighbours, school mates, teachers, shop owners, and so on also of Carribean descent. But no, this family operates entirely in a white man's world. A little strange I think.
Anyway a great story, beautifully told, with much feeling and poignancy. It is easy to see how the threads of 'Small Island' came out of this story. I really enjoyed it, and will make an effort to read Ms Levy's earlier books both written either side of this one.
Posted by Kiwiflora