I was delighted – once again – to be given the opportunity to review for ANZ Litlovers where you will find heaps of terrific reviews as well as information aplenty on Australian Literature and Literature in general.
Note to Self: Never judge a book by its opening pages.
Don’t get me wrong, Chris Flynn’s opening paragraphs – like the rest of this novel – are well-written. It’s just that a misogynistic narrator, together with the street-smart argot of an Irish thug, complete with top-of-the-scale expletives would normally lead me to put such a book back on the shelf. Thank heavens for these book reviewing opportunities, without which I would have missed out on a story with real depth.
A Tiger in Eden is a relatively short novel, packed with powerful imagery and it addresses the rather “big” themes of loyalty, violence, love and redemption with elegant wit. It is the humour that makes the horror palatable.
Flynn employs – with a gentle touch – a recurring motif of Hollywood film characters to lighten some dark moments and offset the otherwise serious subject matter. In referring to the delusional nature of English lads travelling around Thailand annoying everyone with their “shouting about En-ger-land and how they’re going to win the next World Cup”, the narrator – Billy Montgomery – says “They can’t handle the truth, like yer man Jack Nicholson says in that film”. (23) And later, when Billy smartens himself up with a fresh white shirt and a pair of Ray-Bans to impress a couple of Dutch back-packers, he thinks he’s looking pretty good “like yer man Pierce Brosnan or something, even though he’s a Fenian and in some soft shite movies” (39).
Due to the bluer than the sky language, I won’t quote from one of the funniest passages but midway through the book when Billy muses about three Polaroid shots that might be helpful in deterring pestering sex workers, it is – despite the blush-worthy subject matter – hysterically laugh-out-loud funny.
When he goes on retreat in a monastery, he finally confronts his demons with a terrible sense of sadness and loss. He recalls – in a quiet deadpan fashion – his involvement in Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ and I was reminded of Mugabe’s youth militia and the child soldiers in many African countries and other parts of the world who undertake the most heinous crimes because they are programmed to obey; because it becomes unthinkable for them not to. It is gut-wrenching stuff.
Despite trying to lose himself and bury some shocking memories as deep as he can, Billy is under no illusion as to what he is (or has been).
I suppose I was a kind of soldier even though there were some who would have said freedom fighter and others who would have said terrorist or paramilitary, I never really thought about it in them terms in fact I didn’t like thinking about it at all. (82)
His experiences in the monastery are conveyed with a gentler comicality. The Irish tough-man voice is still loud and clear but – somehow – Flynn manages to show us a softer compassionate side to his narrator. In one of my favourite monastery allegorical episodes, a delightful red ant with a big attitude is symbolic in Billy’s getting of wisdom.
The author has provided some background to his novel: “The Story behind the book”, which clarifies firstly that Flynn knows more about the Troubles in Northern Ireland than anyone would wish and secondly, that he is not Billy. I’m not sure that either clarification is necessary. Flynn knows how to tell a story and whether a novel is based on fact, personal experience or exceptional research is not, in my opinion, overly important.
I understand that a tattooed strong-man who doesn’t seem to know how to react without violence doesn’t sound like a sympathetic character but under Flynn’s pen it is hard not to care about yer man Billy and to care deeply; to hope he will succeed in overcoming his demons and putting his past to rest.
Text Publishing’s author blurb tells us that Flynn (Books Editor at The Big Issue) was once a sumo-wrestling referee in a travelling fair. There’s a novel in that, for sure.
Flynn, Chris. A Tiger in Eden, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2012.