One of ACHUKA’s 5 Books of the Year 2022
FOYLES Children’s Book of the Year 2022
ACHUKA Book of the Day 30 Sep 2022
Times Children’s Book of the Week 24 Sep 2022
“While Said may be looking to the poetry and metaphysical writings of Blake for inspiration, his own style is direct, contemporary, his descriptions vivid and accessible to his readers whether the book is being read in the privacy of personal engagement or shared with a class or family. Adding to the whole imaginative experience are the illustrations by Dave McKean. This is an ideal partnership between author and illustrator. From the concise drama of the cover – both the dust jacket and the boards – through the end pages with the Thames a river of light to the page decorations, and the energy and immediacy of McKean’s images, black ink on the white page, strike home.” BfK 5 Star review
“Said discusses modern issues of inclusion and political activism while avoiding clunkiness.” The Times
“Deserves to become a children’s classic. It belongs in every school library and will inspire many, many children, teachers and librarians.” Just Imagine
“A thought-provoking, profound, political and spiritual book.” BookTrust
It was the week before Midwinter. The rain was lashing down, and the narrow streets of Soho were deep with puddles.
So begins this exceptional new novel from SF Said, rich with echoes of John Masefield, C.S. Lewis and Alan Garner.
It is now almost twenty years since Said’s first novel, Varjak Paw, was published. This is only his fourth children’s book. Nine years have elapsed between it and Phoenix, his third book (an epic space adventure). A similar length of time passed between that and and his second novel, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, a sequel to his debut, and went some way to explaining the greater length of the third book.
The nine-year wait for this fourth novel led me to expect — or, if I’m honest, fear, since I am not a lover of very lengthy books — something at least as weighty and materially substantial as Phoenix.
That Tyger is a relatively compact tale is very much in its favour. It is told in short episodic chapters — each of which ends in a way that will tempt the reader to indulge themselves with just one more — in a style, as the two opening sentences indicate, that is highly accessible.
Said is sufficiently self-assured and confident as an author to put his trust in simple and straightforward language. Bravo. A less confident writer — or a teacher earnestly highlighting a student’s work and encouraging more powerful, original language — might have been inclined to “improve” on or “upskill” ‘lashing’ and ‘deep with’.
In an interview, Said once responded to a question about editing his own work like this. “I do many drafts. I want my books to be as good as I can possibly make them, and that takes a long time. There’s a lot of trial and error in this process, and I get it wrong a lot before I get it right… When I look back at the books I’ve written, I don’t see anything I want to change. They really are as good as I can make them. That’s a satisfying thing to feel about your work.”
This determination to make his work as fine as it can be, coupled with that confidence in straightforward recounting which continues throughout Tyger, means that the book can be confidently promoted across the full primary age range (albeit that there are some scenes that may disturb the younger end), as well as being eminently recommendable for older readers.
Tyger is set “in the 21st Century, when London was still the capital of an Empire, and the Empire still ruled the world.” Although William Blake is never mentioned by name in the book, the reader is, to all intents and purposes, transported to a Blakean world. Despite it being the 21st century, time has moved on but nothing much has changed since the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. There is open countryside between central London and Highgate. Slavery is still in existence. Transport is by horse. Many animals have been hunted to extinction. Packages are delivered by runners. There are no telecommunications.
On the other hand, Oxford Street does have “grand department stores”, so we are in a hybrid imaginative space. In contrast to in Phoenix, here Said makes no serious attempt at world-building, extended scenic description, or explanation. The reader is largely left to their own devices (and Dave McKean’s monochrome illustrations) to build for themselves the backdrops to the action.
The main character, Adam Alhambra, lives in the Soho Ghetto with his brother and parents, who run a shop. The Ghetto is guarded by soldiers, and Adam has to pass through a checkpoint (and put up with racist comments) whenever he wants to leave and make deliveries to the shop’s customers.
We are straight into the action. In Chapter 1, Adam leaves the Ghetto, goes out onto Oxford Street and into Tottenham Court Road, is pursued by a knife-wielding robber and has to take refuge in a ruined building next to a rubbish dump. The robber finds him there but, at the start of Chapter 2, is scared away by a roaring tiger.
The creature is wounded and is hiding out to avoid recapture. The protected becomes protector as Adam is sworn to secrecy about the Tyger’s existence. It becomes increasingly difficult for Adam not to confide in those nearest and dearest to him.
At every meeting with the Tyger (referred to as ‘the beast’ by those hunting it), Adam — and in due course Zadie (the daughter of a bookseller) — is encouraged to engage with a hidden power by passing through three sets of doors, the first being the doors of perception.
Said uses this phrase not, I think, in reference to the 1950s book by Aldous Huxley describing his experiences with psychedelic drugs, but to the words as used by William Blake — “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”
That being said, the chapter in which Adam passes through those doors of perception IS decidedly trippy. ”There were wildflowers everywhere. Not just a few of them, but fields and fields of flowers.” Adam is able to see every petal.
Tyger seizes on an opportunity for teaching Adam something philosophical.
Nothing is ordinary,” said the Tyger. “Everything is extraordinary. In all of infinity and eternity, that flower exists only in this world; this precise position in space and time. Everywhere else, there is a different flower, or no flower at all. And the same is true of you. Nothing special? You are miraculous beyond measure, both of you.”
This is a powerful lesson for the boy from the Ghetto to be hearing. A few chapters further on, Adam passes through the doors of imagination and becomes one with a grain of sand (another reference to Blake). It is a mark of this book’s narrative momentum that such interludes do not dull the excitement of the adventure.
For very much an adventure this is — a highly thrilling one. I do hate reviews, especially of novels and films, that essentially recount the story, so I’m not going to say very much about the ensuing events, which involve, at various points, brotherly betrayal, key London landmarks, an evil lord on a bejewelled white horse, two old shepherds, hangings at Tyburn, an Underground Library, mugs of steaming tea, a pack of hounds, a baying mob and an arch-enemy, Urizen (another nod to Blake). This is the closest to a spoiler I am going to allow myself — the passing of Midwinter Night brings a highly satisfying and moving denouement.
I will pick out one chapter for special commendation. In Chapter 16, midway through the book, the lord on the white horse is speaking with Adam’s parents. He says he wants to talk to Adam. “I am sure he has seen all sorts of things whilst making his deliveries. And he is dying to tell us about them – aren’t you, young man?” Adam admits nothing. The lord departs with a threat. “You seem like very fine people. But you are foreigners none the less, and with debts like yours… well, I dread to think what might happen if you couldn’t repay them.” He walks out, singing a popular tune, Oranges and Lemons. This is eminently sinister dramatisation, worthy of The Sopranos.
Children’s publishing provides us with many riches. The fact that I can confidently recommend a book a day, week in and week out, here on ACHUKA is testimony to that. But it is important to recognise when some books, and some authors, reach extraordinary heights of excellence. SF Said has done so with this novel.
Dave McKean has illustrated all four of SF Said’s novels.
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