The first thing I learned in reading The Honesty of Tigers was the meaning behind the title. Tigers, apparently, are the only big cats with markings on their skin that matches their fur. It seems an odd fact, but it goes well with this rather odd, but wonderful, book.
The feel is more magical realism with a Cornish twist than traditional fantasy. The fantastical element is a groundhog day stretched to a repeated lifetime. Ken Jackson relives his own existence from birth to death not once but three times before he figures out some things are not meant to change while others might have appeared straightforward that were not.
This book is a low-key, introspective, people story focused around the trauma and loss life brings, but at the same time, it’s hopeful. Not so much in the changes Ken makes each time, but in the person he becomes. All three times are written as a personal narrative directed to Clare, his wife and love who dies of breast cancer in the very beginning. He starts with a simple goal of preventing that moment, but learns life is not ever simple.
Between the trauma and losses, without even considering the explicit sexual language at times, this story is geared to an adult audience. It touches on common experiences in growing up and on not so common ones. The narrative explores love in many varieties and the realization that it doesn’t have to be as binary as the Western cultural narrative would claim. It also touches on the blinders people wear, such as dismissing reports of abuse without a second thought rather than accepting the possibility the reports could be true.
It looks at the integration of old cultures and new in the form of witches (another characteristic of magical realism) and consequences to actions that might not have been noticed at the time, but have a lasting impact.
The Honesty of Tigers is most definitely a thinking book. It draws you in with beautiful language, a clear love of the sea, and a sense of home, but it’s not just an introspective description of a small Cornish fishing town dying along with the fish. Beyond the lessons each pass teaches Ken, many of which are harsh and reveal his actions to be clothed in help but ultimately selfish, how he revitalizes and redirects his home to save it from dying is wonderful.
Ultimately, there is a core strength in this story. It doesn’t scream, shout, and rant. There are definitely moments of passion of pretty much every type, but the overall feel is of a man determined to make the most of this gift. His focus and growth bring him from a simple grief-stricken man blaming himself for things out of his control into a greater understanding of his world and the people in it. It’s a powerful transition taken one step at a time and with moments of peace to balance out the bad ones. Ken never accepts the peace he finds, though, or rests until he’s made things the way they should be, and it’s not what you might expect.
P.S. I received this book from the author in return for an honest review.