Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Review of Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis

A story within a story, Tiger Moon owes a debt of thanks to Scheherazade. In this case, however, there’s a slightly different reason that the young wife is doomed: having failed in various attempts to escape, she will be killed when her new husband finds out she is not a virgin. As the book begins, this girl is sold by her poverty-stricken parents to be the eighth wife of a volatile and wealthy Indian merchant, Ahmed Mudhi, who prefers to be called Rajah. The girl herself is named Safia, meaning Virtue, but prefers to be called Raka, the Full Moon. Or so she tells a young eunuch who sometimes attends her in the Rajah’s harem. He is called Lalit, The Beautiful One, by the household, but prefers his own name, Lagan, meaning The Right Time.

In case all this talk of names seems like a muddle, think of it as a symbol of the surprises to come. For one thing, the "fictional" framed story is far more powerful than the "real" framing story. For another, all of the important characters in Tiger Moon first appear to be something other than their true selves. The main character, Farhad Kamal, is even able to change his appearance readily, beyond what would be explained by mere disguise. Later in the book, he uses a series of names that represent transformation. Michaelis makes us think about the differences between who we are and who we seem, as well as the differences between who we are and who we may become.

As she awaits her fate, Raka begins to tell Lalit a story about the Hindu god Krishna setting a trap to catch a hero. Of course, Krishna doesn’t seem to get quite what he expected. Even the place he sets his trap has been altered—an ancient sacred grove turned into a large garden by the British. The author writes, “Krishna ground his teeth, but he sat down and waited patiently for his hero. The hero turned up around midday.”

We learn that “Farhad means Happiness and Kamal means Lotus Blossom, and up to this point in Farhad Kamal’s life, he had not discovered what his life had to do with either of them.” A scruffy sixteen-year-old trickster and thief, Farhad is drawn to the silver amulet Krishna has placed in the center of a lotus blossom. But as soon as he touches it, he is also drawn into Krishna’s schemes, assigned to rescue the god’s daughter from the demon Ravana. As the story continues, we understand that the girl Farhad must rescue and Raka are one and the same—only they’re not. Michaelis's two stories overlap lightly and cleverly in the beginning, then boldly and mystically by the end of the book.

In the meantime, we are utterly captivated by Farhad, a flawed but likable young man whose doggedness charms even though we know he’s mostly pursuing Krishna’s quest so that he won’t spend his next life on Earth as a worm or a woodlouse. (I was reminded of Lloyd Alexander's slightly vain, mistake-prone heroes.) Farhad's task is not a straightforward one. Before he can rescue Krishna’s daughter, he must steal a cursed jewel, the bloodstone, in order to bribe the Rajah’s chief servant. Farhad must also steal a sacred tiger, for the tiger will be his steed as he races across the desert, trying to reach the girl before it’s too late.

No quest would be complete without a villain, and Farhad's is a man he first encounters as a fellow prisoner when the boy is thrown into jail. Like Farhad, the Frenchman is in pursuit of the lost jewel. Like Farhad, he is more than a master of disguise, changing his appearance as he comes after the bloodstone again and again with increasing viciousness. But Farhad has allies of his own, most notably the great white tiger, Nitish. The two bicker, yet gradually become partners in Krishna’s enterprise, compensating for each other’s weaknesses—selfishness and cowardice in Farhad’s case, pride and a fear of water in Nitish’s.

Farhad’s growth during the course of his journey is rough, but nevertheless heartening. By the end of the book, we are more than ready for the framing story and Farhad’s tale to merge, and the transformation somehow works. From a writing standpoint, it’s a tremendous accomplishment. Most of all, however, Tiger Moon is a magical reading experience. I found myself madly rooting for Farhad to succeed.

I’ll just mention that this book came to my attention because it won a 2009 Batchelder Honor award, given to the finest children’s books in translation. Originally written in German, Tiger Moon was translated into English by Anthea Bell.

Note for Worried Parents: This is most definitely a Young Adult book, and it’s pretty open about sex. There are a couple of discreet, yet clear scenes of sex between main characters, as well as a few less pleasant encounters and references. I have already mentioned that a key plot point is Raka’s not being a virgin. Though none of this particularly detracts from the story telling, some readers might find it offensive.

Update (5-16-12): Rethinking my take on this book after reading a review from Book Smugglers. Wow!

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