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?
A tiger in Eden
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)
* So it’s not the book for you if that offends.