Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2015.
Tigers seem to creep into contemporary fiction quite a lot as metaphors for cruelty, sexuality and aggression. In Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest a tiger stalks an elderly lady’s house; in Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi a young man is stuck on a life boat with a tiger named Richard Parker; in Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife a tiger escapes captivity in Belgrade during the Second World War.
Tigers feature in Myfanwy Jone’s Leap, too, an Australian novel that has been shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award. These particular tigers are flesh-and-blood real (as opposed to being fantastical or surreal) and they distract freelance graphic designer Elise from thinking about the death of her teenage daughter and the mess that her marriage has become. Every day she visits the zoo to watch the captive tigers for an hour. No one knows she does this, and she can’t quite explain why she’s keeping it so secret, but it becomes a kind of ritual that plays a role in her grieving process.
Tiger mother: teeth that crush femurs like breadsticks carry mewling cubs without breaking skin; mace-like paws employed in gentle cavorting. That excoriating tongue applied lightly to baby fur. Perfect strength meets perfect love. But even a tiger mother is only able to protect her young up to a point. There will be moments when her back is turned.
A grieving boyfriend
But this isn’t just Elise’s story; it’s also the story of 25-year-old Joe, another character who is grieving. His girlfriend, Jen, died three years ago, but he’s stuck in a kind of limbo, unable to move on with his own life. He’s living in a share house in Melbourne’s inner north and is passing the time by working two dead end part-time jobs and hanging out with his mates. He feels drawn to a colleague, chef Lena, who is of Ukrainian heritage, but doesn’t feel ready to begin a romantic relationship just yet. “You can be friends with a girl, right?” is his constant refrain.
Then an intriguing young woman — a nurse who works nightshift and, tellingly, is never referred to by name — moves into the spare room and he becomes smitten with her. They develop a friendship based on their shared interest in keeping fit — they go jogging together and he teaches her basic parkour moves — and before too long the pair become sexually involved.
Yet, just when he feels that he might be ready to move on, two things hold him back: Facebook chat with an anonymous person who knew Jen and is mourning her; and the nurse’s plan to make enough money to head overseas.
An easy-to-read tale
These two storylines are expertly intertwined to create a seamless whole. What ensues is an enjoyable and easy-to-read tale, even though it felt slightly predictable in places (I guessed the link between the two characters very early on) and over-worked in others. I never felt truly connected to either Joe, or Elise, and their shared grief seemed distant and remote to me, almost as if I was viewing things through a pane of glass. In some ways — and I don’t wish to damn the novel with feint praise — it felt like I was reading the kind of book that might be a set text for secondary school students: it deals with big issues, is ripe with metaphors, has a strong sense of place but views the world through a kind of adolescent mindset and not a great deal of emotional depth.
But the book’s dialogue is pitch-perfect (the banter between male friends is particularly good) and the atmosphere of share house living beautifully evoked. It’s also very good at exploring what it is to be a young adult trying to find your way in the world, as evidenced by Joe’s fragile relationship with his own mother, who worries about him being so forlorn all the time.
However, what gives Leap a rather distinctive twist is Joe’s interest in parkour, a form of physical exercise involving running and jumping from obstacles, whether natural or human-made, without the use of equipment (I’ve seen people doing parkour on London’s Southbank, leaping from fences and park benches and climbing up walls — and it looks incredibly dangerous). Jones uses the idea of “leaping” as a wonderful metaphor for having faith in doing new things, of living life outside of your comfort zone.
He has a notion, though. Jogs to the end of the rail bridge and swings up and onto the orange steel girder. Easy to shuffle sideways along the fifteen-centimetre ledge. In a few minutes he is nearing the centre. It’s a long drop to the straggle of water. He pauses there, looking down, and things become so beautifully simple: you live or you die.
Will this be enough to win the Miles Franklin? As a portrait of grief (from two angles) and marriage, Leap is good, but I’m not convinced it will secure such a prestigious literary award. For instance, I read it about a month ago, and not much of the story has remained with me. In other words, it didn’t leave much of an impact.
Finally, please note Leap hasn’t been published in the UK or North America. I ordered my copy direct from Australia. (Big shout-out to independent book store Readings, which shipped it to me within four days of placing my online order for a flat $22 shipping fee.)