No superlatives needed here – they’re all inside the dust jacket (‘masterpiece‘ says Frank Cotterell Boyce). But I want to give a personal perspective on why I think it’s such an important book.
I’m a grandchild of the empire. All four of my grandparents were out there at some stage. My father’s mother was born in the British Raj. We’d watch A Passage to India together, and The Jewel in the Crown. And when I was small she read me Kipling.
It must have gone in, because I went ‘out there’ myself at 19, to explore the hill stations where she grew up.
This summer I picked up a copy of the Just So Stories at a jumble sale and read it to Mainie. The imperial take on race needed caveats and side-discussions almost as long as the stories themselves. But Kipling’s language was as fresh and alive and beautiful as ever. I found turns of phrase I’ve used my whole adult life, without knowing where I’d got them from.
Here’s a danger, though. For me, there was a romance to Kipling’s empire – to that late-Victorian and Edwardian age, by which time the British had invented a moral purpose to ruling a quarter of the world. The moralism always rang false in my ear, I think, but the romance went in deep.
You might call SF a child or grandchild of the empire, too. He’s a Londoner like me, but his parents came from the Middle-East. And he grew up a Muslim boy in a white world.
It happened in the 21st Century, when London was still the capital of an Empire, and the Empire still ruled the world…Tyger, SF Said
It’s hard to be romantic about the empire in SF Said’s Tyger. In his fictional, parallel world, it’s all still going strong – and not Kipling’s version of empire, but an earlier, (even) more brutal one. Its lifeblood is still the slave trade. Ordinary people pay to see the public executions at Tyburn gallows.
And in the Soho ghetto where the ‘foreigners’ live, a Londoner called Adam, a Muslim boy, sets out to make deliveries for his parents’ shop. He passes the checkpoint onto Oxford Street, and emerges into the white world. He keeps his head down – he always keeps his head down – until the day he finds the tyger…
A story for our times – and our children’s times to come.
If you’re interested in more about SF Said and Tyger, you can find him at his blog and on twitter. And here’s a fascinating article he wrote for the Guardian – about Watership Down, diverse books, and growing up in 70s Britain as an Arabic Muslim boy with a name nobody could pronounce.
If you’d like to buy a copy of Tyger, we get a small percentage of sales from this link – Blackwell’s is our local bookshop here in Oxford.