A Tiger In Eden by Chris Flynn (Text Publishing 2012)
Reviewed by Andrew Jack
Billy Montgomery is a bad man, or at least so he’d have you believe. A former Loyalist hard man on the run from the law, he spends the opening of A Tiger In Eden living like the worlds toughest backpacker in Thailand. Enjoying the beaches, the brawling and every female tourist he can talk into bed, we know Billy is running from something terrible in his past:
– Maybe that’s all you need is those photographs in the mind. When you’re older, I suppose that’s all you have. I’ve got loads already but they’re not very nice most of them, I don’t like thinking about it. It’s all the bloody faces of the Catholic lads I done over and worse. –
Of course when you run, you take yourself with you, and the monster Billy is fleeing from is himself as much as the trouble he left behind in Northern Ireland.
Set in the hedonist’s paradise that was 1990’s Thailand, A Tiger In Eden follows Billy as he is forced by his own demons to confront what he’s become, and what he’s done as tries to find reason amongst the wreckage of his life.
Despite the fact that Billy swears constantly throughout the book, not to mention cracks a few heads with what he calls “the muaythai”, it’s hard to see him as the sociopathic killer he seems to think he is. Despite everything in his past, Billy is a likable guy. He’s sensitive to the local customs and so ready and willing to learn that it’s hard to imagine him ending up as soldier in a Loyalist gang.
He’s hardly proud of the things he’s done, but it’s not until Billy makes it to a Buddhist retreat where no talking allowed for ten days that you really start to see Billy the way he seems himself. There really was a monster there, a nightmare of a man that could easily have been the villain of another book. It’s here that Chris Flynn really pulls out all the stops. Billy’s fight to regain his humanity from the person he used to be makes this more than just a fun weekend read.
The violence in A Tiger In Eden is brutal, affecting reading. Not because it’s gory, but because it shows without flinching the consequences of violence for everyone involved, from the victim to the witnesses. When we hit the final revelation of Billy’s past it’s a scene of abject and utter horror that will stick with you long after you’ve put the book on your shelf.
Chris Flynn has nailed Billy’s voice, and I can still hear the character in my head as I’m typing this. I’m yet to visit Ireland, so I can’t tell you if the speech patterns are authentic or not, but the voice of the character as a whole fits perfectly. Billy is a surprisingly apt narrator both to his own life and to the lives around him. There are subtle changes to his narration as the story progresses; it’s a nice touch and it underscores the journey Billy takes over the course of A Tiger In Eden.
It’s also surprisingly funny for such grim subject matter. Billy rarely deliberately makes a joke as a character; the humor comes more from his wry descriptions of the madness unfolding around him as he makes his way through Thailand. If you backpacked through Thailand in the nineties there’s almost certainly some reminiscing (or wish fulfillment) to be done through Billy’s adventures.
A Tiger In Eden is an easy read, despite Billy’s phonetically applied Irish brogue; my only real complaint is that it feels like ninety percent of the plot is jammed into the last twenty percent of the book. I would have liked to have had some of the revelations spread more evenly through the story. There’s also a sequence with a literal tiger that doesn’t make a lot of sense, even if it is pretty cool.
Regardless, this a fun, fast read with a emotional core that brings A Tiger In Eden up from what could have been just a hard man’s sex and violence holiday memoir to a satisfying and hopeful tale of redemption.