Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis

Hmm, I wanted very much to love this 2009 Batchelder Honor book but I found myself unable to do so.

Ahmad Mudhi is a Rajah, supposedly Muslim but choosing his 8th wife. So I tripped up right away on that, plus no Muslim rulers to my knowledge ever used the title of "Raja". All right, this is fantasy but it seems to operate on the old premise of writing about one group of people for a readership that will consist of quite another. The girl Safia, now Raka (supposedly Hindu, but Safia? Not a Hindu name, surely) is not a virgin. Okay, that works for me, even becomes intriguing as we go on to find out that the eunuch Lalit is not an eunuch. But wait--Farhad Kamal is supposed to be a Hindu name? I found Tiger Moon to be a confusing and complicated story that also managed to mangle the Hindu mythological stories of Krishna and Rama together in ways that seemed completely unnecessary. Everyone’s after the bloodstone and Farhad has to rescue Krishna’s daughter. By this time I just wanted to be done. But Ravana’s involved as well—oh, I was SO confused, more so by the praise the book was garnering!

The mythology isn't the only thing bowdlerized. All the regions of India seem rolled into one , which not only adds to the confusion but homogenizes the entire subcontinent by implying that gestures, behavior, customs can be transplanted easily from one to the other.

The expository text contains vast generalizations about India, the kind a tourist might make after a few months traveling the country. The statement up front about Indians not valuing life made me go pull out my Complete Works of Rudyard Kipling. I found these fragments of exposition in a variety of stories, voiced very much like the declarations Michaelis makes about India:

"Now India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously..."(Plain Tales From the Hills)
"All hours of the twenty-four are alike to Orientals..."(Kim)
"Herding in India is one of the laziest things in the world." (The Jungle Book)
"All kinds of magic are out of date and done with except in India where nothing changes..."(The Bisara of Pooree)

To me it seemed as if Michaelis may have been channeling Kipling. Which is fine, except that Kipling obviously did Kipling a whole lot better! And his exposition, whatever its tone, was always relevant to the story. If you really study the man's work, it's a primer in the construction of story. Nothing is gratuitous, whether you agree with it or not. In contrast, the expository bits in Tiger Moon felt throwaway.

Some things made sense—the hijra dancer, and how the foreigner keeps changing, sometimes French, sometimes English, sometimes German. That was a brilliant touch, a commentary on the history of colonialism in the region that added momentum to the story.

Lots of dramatic story twists, but in all I somehow didn't care about anyone except perhaps the tiger. Thanks to Reeta Sinha who helped me clarify my reactions to this book.

6 comments:

  1. Uma,
    My head hurts after reading this review.
    I'm trying so hard to be accurate in my historical WIP, and agonizing over the assumptions I have to make when there is no information available. This just blows my mind.

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  2. It's why stories likes yours have to be written, so they can become part of the conversation of books. Otherwise the conversation will be dominated by characters who are faraway and exotic, barefoot and oppressed--or dead!

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  3. I spent 17 years in Japan, but I'm still cautious about researching historical data whenever I write about anything to do with Japanese history -- I live in fear of getting things wrong. It sounds like this writer put India in the blender to come up with her material. I echo Nandini's sentiments!

    And I'm so proud: I think I would have guessed that Kamal was a Muslim name. Does that make me an India expert too?

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  4. In the blender, a good way to put it, Mary. Kamal could be a Hindu name but combined with Farhad, it doesn't sound like it. I'm not sure I can claim to be an expert on India (where I was born) or New Mexico (where I live). We all have to approach the complexities of a place with caution and attention to the small details.

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  5. I just finished reading this, and all the way through I kept thinking of Kipling's Kim...yet still, by the end, I was hooked by this particular story.

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  6. Charlotte that's fine--opinion is always subjective in the end. Just make sure, as Chimamanda Adichie says in her wonderful TED lecture, that it's not the only India story that you carry in your mind.

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