Book Review: Tiger’s Eye by Inga Clendinnen

Tiger's Eye by Inga ClendinnenI’ve mentioned in other posts that I like reading book blurbs. Rightly or wrongly, I often judge a book by its back cover.  The blurb for Tiger’s Eye, actually an extract from a review in the Australian newspaper The Age, absolutely sold the book to me, while strangely revealing little about the book’s content:

“This is a rare book, and rare in its own time.  It is memoir, history, fiction, a documenting of filial gratitude and ingratitude, and a record of the cauldron experience of a near-fatal illness, all bundled, coherently – that’s the miracle – between covers.  And written with a white intensity that assaults the way a Southern Ocean breaker does: first, shock, then – exhilaration…

The paradox of this intensely personal, powerfully intelligent memoir is that it lets the reader through while leaving Clendinnen and the people she anatomises with their skins on and mystery intact…I am reminded of Sylvia Plath’s last poems, not because Clendinnen is derivative – she is indelibly herself – but because she, too, can extrude clarity out of chaos.”

I knew nothing about the writer and had never heard of the title, but standing dithering in the bookshop I decided that at only £1 it was worth a gamble, so I took it home.  Then I spent months not reading it and looking at its glossy black spine, questioning the impulse which had made me buy it – would I be wasting my precious reading time by even starting it?

But when I finally read it, I loved it.  Absolutely loved it.

Clendinnen is an Australian historian and has written books on a wide range of subjects, including the Holocaust, the Aztecs, and Aboriginal Australians.  This book, while describing itself as a memoir, is much, much more than that.  It would be a mistake to slide it neatly into the category of non-fiction or biography.  This is how the book begins:

“A decade ago, when I was in my early fifties, I fell ill.  ‘Fall’ is the appropriate word; it is almost as alarming and quite as precipitous as falling in love.  It is even more like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole into a world which might resemble this solid one, but which operates on quite different principles. Pain, death and loneliness are domestic presences there, in grey-green masks and gloves.  So are humour and kindness, which come in all sorts of uniform.  You are granted the dubious privilege of being a child again in a place which sometimes resembles a child’s nightmare, and at others a well-run nursery.

It is also a world in which, like Alice, you are subject to unscheduled and surprising transformations.

This is not the story of a medical crisis… This is the story of what happened when I fell down my rabbit hole.”

We are first invited to share in Clendinnen’s experiences of her illness, which is getting progressively worse, and her time in hospital: sometimes tragic; sometimes comic.  Just at the point when you’re starting to feel comfortable with the way this memoir is developing, she begins to reminisce about her childhood.  Still all well and good, although you can sense a shift, as if the wind has changed direction, in how her still-sharp brain is dealing with the shock of illness.  She has turned to the past rather than the present.

Suddenly you realise that you are no longer reading about her memories, but that she is creating fiction.  I had to stop and query this, turning back the pages to check for the transition, which is so seamless I missed it.  In a brief earlier aside, Clendinnen considers the way in which our childhood memories become infused with fiction in order to plug gaps or soften blows.  Now she runs with this by inserting actual stories (true fiction?) into her memoir, rather than the fiction she realises she has created of her own childhood.

It’s fascinating reading, but you can’t dismiss the uncomfortable feeling that her mind is becoming fragmented, and increasingly disjointed, right before your eyes.  Finding an unreliable narrator outside of fiction, when memoirs and biographies are supposed to be true accounts of a person’s life, is unsettling but exciting.

This writing style won’t be for everyone as you do need to keep on your toes a little bit to follow Clendinnen’s train of thought, but I was delighted with the book.  Once you understand what she’s doing, and what she’s asking you to think about, it’s easy to follow.  I found it such a refreshing way of writing – so imaginative, so perceptive.  It’s one which would be a delight to read again at different stages of your life – the type where you discover something new to mull over every time you pick it up.

It just goes to show that you should never be afraid to try something new.  A book you’ve never heard of before might just open up a whole new world: a different genre, author, culture or historical period which you’d not previously explored, perhaps.  I’m now keen to try one of Clendinnen’s straight historical works and see if her writing there is just as good…


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nishita
    Jan 08, 2013 @ 11:22:11

    Lovely review. That blurb actually makes the book sound a little pretentious and intimidating. It’s your review that sells the book.


    • TheBrontëSister
      Jan 12, 2013 @ 21:01:13

      Ah thanks! Yes I do see that… I think I must have been in the right frame of mind when I picked it up. Plus the cover was striking. But glad to hear that my review struck a chord! 🙂


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