2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Myfanwy Jones, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Leap’ by Myfanwy Jones

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

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.

Other readers seem to have liked it more than me. See Shelleyrae’s review at Book’d Out and Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

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.)

This is my 30th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 21st for #AWW2016.

Author, Book review, John Vaillant, nature, Non-fiction, Publisher, Russia, Sceptre, Setting, travel, true crime

‘The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival’ by John Vaillant


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Sceptre; 353 pages; 2010.

John Vaillant’s The Tiger is a gripping account of the hunt to find a man-eating tiger in Russia’s Far East — a place known as Primorye, which was once considered part of Outer Manchuria, on the border with China.

The book takes one particular incident — the death of Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger in 1997 — and spins it out into a fascinating account of the Siberian tiger (also known as the Amur tiger), its biology and behaviour, and the conservation efforts that have been made to protect the species, which is endangered, in Russia.

Part crime scene investigation, part natural history, part travelogue, it reads like a thriller with all the authority of a respected journal, and has earned Vaillant, a Vancouver-based journalist, a bevy of awards, including British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for 2010, and Globe and Mail Best Book for Science 2010.

Tiger-croppedAn Amur tiger, in captivity. Image via wikipedia reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What makes the book so extraordinarily readable is that Vaillant turns a conservation issue into a human interest story in which good men and bad men do battle over a beautiful but enigmatic animal. He charts in painstaking detail the way in which Markov’s death was investigated by the authorities and reveals how it sparked terror in surrounding communities.

And while he shies away from demonising Markov — the man, after all, met a particularly cruel fate — he does turn Yuri Trush, the lead tracker and head of (Russian governmental anti-poaching body) Operation Tiger, into a bit of a hero for whom it is difficult not to admire.

A love letter to the tiger

But mostly Vaillant writes a kind of love letter to the tiger, peppering his adrenalin-fuelled narrative with so many tiger facts it is difficult to keep track of them all. For instance, did you know that “the tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin”? Or that a tiger’s claw is “needle-sharp at the end, and bladed along a portion of its inside length […] about as close to a surgical tool as one can find in nature”?

There are other, more surreal, aspects, including the belief that tigers are vengeful creatures and will hunt down those who do them wrong — and that includes poachers who mess with their territory or steal their kills. I thought this sounded a bit far-fetched, until Vaillant reveals evidence to suggest that the tiger who killed Markov went out of his way to track him down.

Amongst other issues, The Tiger shows how perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China resulted in a surge in tiger poaching during the early 1990s.

A dangerous game

It also shows how the authorities which protect the tiger are caught up in a dangerous game — not just with the wild tigers but with the poachers who will resort to almost anything to catch their prey. Because Primorye is so remote it is true frontier country, a kind of wild west, where enforcing law and order is difficult if not impossible. And yet, Russia, the first country in the world to recognise the tiger as a protected species (it did this in 1947), has achieved some amazing results in tiger conservation.

The Amur tiger population has rebounded to a sustainable level over the past sixty years, a recovery unmatched by any other subspecies of tiger. Even with the upsurge in poaching over the past fifteen years, the Amur tiger has, for now, been able to hold its own.

I won’t lie and say this book kept me on the edge of my seat throughout: it does wane a little in places as Vaillant gets bogged down in facts and figures. The narrative works best when he concentrates on the cat-and-mouse game between the three characters that are central to the story — the tiger, the poacher and the law enforcer — although that is occasionally repetitive in places.

A frightening read

But for something a little different, it’s a terrific — and often frightening — read. And while it’s a sad and sobering thought that there are less than 400 Siberian tigers left in the wild, it’s pleasing to know that “a portion of the proceeds from the book are being donated to several organizations working on the front lines of the tiger pro­tection effort in Primorye”. Such organizations will need all the help they can get…

Finally, if you read this book in Kindle format there are a lot of rogue hyphens littering the text. These tend to appear in the middle of lines, rather than at the end, which is quite distracting. And fiddling around with the text size makes absolutely no difference.