Saturday, 21 May 2011

Reading round-up continued: Tigers One

A briefer post to sum up some more of what I have been reading lately, or, Tigers!

This was honestly not intentional - and I haven't even got round to reading another book that could have qualified on this theme, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, another from the Orange shortlist.

This post has become rather long, so I'm going to split it in three, and take each book in turn. First things first. Lionel Shriver's The Female of the Species is not actually about tigers at all (and yes, I think it's a lioness on the cover, so I'm stretching this slightly), but about a 59-year-old anthropologist, Gray Kaiser, who is a formidable woman who starts breaking all her own rules when she falls for a much-younger and manipulative colleague, Raphael; to throw unreliable narration into the mix, the story is narrated by Gray's long-serving assistant, Errol, who would quite like a future with Gray himself. I've been reading my way through Shriver's back catalogue ever since I finished her three most recent books - Kevin of course, but also The Post-Birthday World (which I think might be her best yet) and the viciously, exhaustingly bleak So Much For All That. Although her novels range very widely in subject-matter, I've yet to find one that failed to engage me; while I think that technically, some aspects of her writing can be criticised, her honesty, originality and consistently-challenging approach to topics that, in the hands of another writer, would descend into an 'issue novel' make up for all that.

But I digress - what about this novel, which is actually her debut? I didn't notice any drop in quality from the later novels I'd read, but what I actually found most fascinating about reading this book was Shriver's author's note at the end, which was written quite recently and reflects back on the process of writing this book in 1987, and how she feels it measures up now. Interesting, because her criticisms of the novel roundly target the things I most liked about it. She savages herself fairly thoroughly for the couple of chapters' digression at the beginning of the novel, where a much younger Grey is in Africa in the 1940s with Charles Corgie, who has set himself up as god to an isolated African tribe, claiming that it breaks the pace of the narrative. However, I not only found this the most gripping part of the novel, and a cracking beginning, I can't imagine the book without it - Gray's character would seem far shallower, I suspect, and her motivations less understandable (Raphael, when he turns up, looks remarkably like Corgie did then).

On the other hand, she claims that the flashbacks to Raphael's childhood, when he ran away from his violent father and lived rough in his own neighbourhood, are one of the best parts of the novel, whereas I thought this was where it strayed closest to sentimentality, and indeed are one of the few sections from any of Shriver's novels I can imagine being written by another writer (Errol narrates these snippets, and so it could be argued that he is at fault for embellishing them - but they take up a large enough chunk of space for this device to become quite irritating, if that is indeed what Shriver is doing). So I'm quite thankful that Shriver doesn't intend to rewrite this for 2011 - leave well alone!

Tomorrow: actual tigers in Jamrach's Menagerie.

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