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Chris Flynn, A tiger in Eden (Review)

April 18, 2012
Flynn Tiger in Eden

Courtesy: Text Publishing

Are all people redeemable, regardless of what they’ve done? This is the question that confronts us in Chris Flynn’s debut novel, Tiger in Eden. I wondered, as I was reading this book, what inspired Flynn to write – in first person – about a man who was a violent thug during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and how he managed to achieve such an authentic voice. I don’t read reviews before I read books, and I didn’t read the press release which came with the book until I’d finished it, but when I did I discovered that Flynn was born in Belfast during the period he writes about. “I was born into the war and knew nothing else growing up”, he says.

He has seen horror, he says. He has had guns pointed at him, and he has heard “stories of torture and cruelty so nightmarish I would not recount them to someone who had grown up outside of Northern Ireland. You don’t want that in your head”. This, however, is the world of Flynn’s protagonist, the thug-on-the-run, Billy Montgomery, whose head is full of violent memories and whose hands are stained with blood. “Sometimes”, he says, “I reckon the worst thing that can happen to a person is surviving”.

I don’t want to say too much about the story because it’s a slim book with a small cast of characters and a pretty straightforward plot. To say too much would give it away. It’s set in Thailand in the mid 1990s. The aforesaid thug Billy, who is not short of a penny due to his criminal past, is hiding out. But, here’s the interesting thing. Billy is a sympathetic character, despite the violence we know he’s done (though we don’t know the full extent until near the end) and even despite the violence we see him enact in the first half of the novel. He’s sympathetic because we realise early on that he’s trying to work through something, that he’s carrying some terrible baggage he wants to shake off.

It’s the mark of a good writer to be able to make an unappealing character sympathetic. And Billy is pretty unappealing. Not only is there his violent past, but his attitude to women is (or, at least has been) appalling, as has been his attitude to Catholics and various other “lesser”, to him, members of society. But, this book is really about the education of young Billy and so, through the love of a couple of good women (which is, yes, a little corny) and some other meaningful encounters, a Buddhist retreat, and reading, Billy starts to think about his life and, consequently, starts to confront his demons.

One of the things that makes Billy work is his voice. The novel is told first person in the vernacular of his ilk. This means there’s liberal use of swear words*, minimal punctuation, and the grammar is, shall we say, idiosyncratic. The result is a voice that sounds authentic – and, in this case, reliable. The only thing stopping Billy from telling the truth at times is the pain it would release.

Billy is, of course, the tiger in Eden, a potential threat to good people everywhere, but just to give it some added real and metaphoric punch, Flynn has our Billy confronting and staring down an actual tiger, an escapee from a zoo (just like Billy really). However, whilst I say Billy is “the” tiger in Eden, he is not the “only” tiger in Eden. Flynn shows Thailand to be a place spoilt if not corrupted by sex-tourists and cashed-up back-packers who abuse the locals one way or another. Here is Billy after realising that a genuine friends-only outing with a local Thai girl threatens her reputation:

The aul sex tourism had changed things for all these people, I could see that now ‘cos normal life no longer existed. It was kind of like how the Troubles had changed things back home, once you go down that road, sure there’s nothing going back, everything gets changed forever and not for the better. I felt ashamed so I did.

In other words, while Flynn’s main story is men like Billy, he manages to make a few other points along the way.

At the beginning of this post I said that the book confronts us with the question of redemption, and so it does, but that’s not so much what Billy is seeking. He does not specifically ask to be “saved”. He simply wants to be able – psychologically and actually – to put the past behind him and “make something” of his life. This is not a perfect book. It’s somewhat predictable and the supporting characters are not well fleshed out, but Billy is a character that will engage you and make you see the world from another angle. And isn’t that what reading is all about?

Chris Flynn
A tiger in Eden
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
217pp.
ISBN: 9781921922039

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

* So it’s not the book for you if that offends.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2012 6:01 pm

    This sounds like an interesting book. What got my attention was the part about Thailand, and as I’ve been living here for quite a while, I just didn’t see the part about “cashed-up back-packers who abuse the locals one way or another” but of course, it’s the author’s point of view. I’d rather say the locals get even, and one of the way the do it is the double standard pricing. That being said, there are good/bad people everywhere and I’ve met my share from both categories here.

    • April 18, 2012 7:18 pm

      Thanks Delia for your perspective. Sounds like it’s one worth your reading to see what you think. He roams about various parts of Thailand – some tourist resorts, some not. He’s most scathing about the sex-tourism aspect.

  2. April 18, 2012 6:03 pm

    *one of the ways they do it.
    Sorry about the typos.

    • April 18, 2012 7:19 pm

      It’s irritating that you can’t edit your own comments on another blog isn’t it? I do typos more regularly than I’d like so no apologies necessary!

  3. April 18, 2012 8:37 pm

    Yes, except for when reading is about escaping, or about being enveloped in comfort. Which is why I keep wanted to reread Girl of the Limberlost :)

    • April 18, 2012 11:14 pm

      But even Limberlost was for me the world from another angle. Such a different place and life. Don’t you think?

  4. April 19, 2012 2:54 am

    Sounds like an interesting book that asks a question that we can’t seem to have a definite answer for. There was a news story a number of years ago now about a man on death row in California. He’d been in prison for years for a gang killing and in the mean time he was instrumental in personally creating a program that dealt with gang violence and helped kids get out of gangs. His attorneys appealed for his sentence to be changed to life in prison because clearly the man had become a good person, had made and continued to make amends for his crime. The appeal was denied and he was executed. I don’t agree with capital punishment to begin with and the story made me sad and angry.

    • April 19, 2012 8:03 am

      Yes, it’s maddening isn’t it … And indicates that punishment is more about revenge than rehabilitation. As I said in a previous post I can understand the pain that can lead to the desire for revenge but I don’t get the philosophy. I’m sure some argue that punishment is not revenge, that it’s about prevention and about teaching a lesson. My understanding is that capital punishment isn’t a proven deterrence and it doesn’t in my mind achieve the latter because the person is dead so can’t go on to prove they’ve learnt the lesson. In other words, I agree with you!

  5. cheezyk permalink
    April 19, 2012 9:15 am

    I am ashamed to admit that this is a book that I judged by its front cover and have dismissed any time I’ve seen it. Now that I have a better idea of what it’s about I do believe I will give it a second chance. Thank you for the great write up.

    • April 19, 2012 11:12 pm

      Oh thanks cheeky. You don’t like the cover? Though, must say, if I had just come across it I’m not sure what I’d have thought, but having it in my hand I rather like it. It’s rather unusual, hard to pin down when you see it just what it might be.

      • cheezyk permalink
        April 20, 2012 9:40 am

        It just always struck me as being ‘kiddy’ so I didn’t ever look any closer.

        • April 20, 2012 10:56 am

          Ah, I can see how it could come across like that. Thanks for explaining.

  6. April 25, 2012 10:04 am

    I didn’t want to visit until I had finished reading it myself Sue. You’re right about Billy’s voice – oh, what a voice! – which made me blush and hold my breath and laugh out loud and wonder what on earth was coming next. I’m certainly glad I got the opportunity to read it.

    • April 25, 2012 10:48 pm

      Yes, me too Karen Lee. His voice made it, didn’t it. (Like you, I don’t read blog posts until I’ve read the book)

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  1. A Tiger in Eden, by Chris Flynn « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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