The Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo

April 5, 2012 at 02:09 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , )

8/10

Kate DiCamillo is one of those rare breeds of contemporary authors, whose writing consistently and almost without variation turns a gentle light upon painful and tragic things and reveals hidden beauty, in such a way that it is mature enough and raw enough to appeal instantly to adult readers, but sweet enough and tender enough to be accessible to the children she is ostensibly writing for. “Ostensibly”, because it can be difficult to believe that a children’s writer would or could write stories so complex and so instantly poignant.

The Tiger Rising is one of her earlier novels, but in spite of her relative inexperience she sets out boldly and without any sign of shying away from deep tragedy and uncensored pain. If DiCamillo’s developing talent and the contrast between this and her later books can be seen anywhere, it can be seen in her choice to write less lyrically, and with less whimsical and gentle humour. It is difficult to tell if this is a hallmark of her style that has not yet asserted itself, or if the bleak nature of the setting in this book dictated the atmosphere. Nevertheless, for whichever reason, readers accustomed to her work will miss the short sentences bearing simple and matter-of-fact confessions from the hearts of beautiful characters, shocking in brevity and laudable in profundity. This world (and DiCamillo’s autobiographical description of the rural southern USA) is much less adorned and idealised than her later fairytales.

“He took a deep breath. He opened his mouth and let the words fall out. ‘I know where there’s a tiger.'”

-The Tiger Rising

This could easily be a criticism, but the fact that this book is so different and so lacking in what made some of her other books so successful, does not by any stretch of the imagination make it a bad book. It is cruelly short, without either history or even much in the way of resolution, and feels intentionally aimed towards that narrowest demographic of young readers: old enough to appreciate subtlety, young enough to love beauty. It has more of a feel of Steinbeck about it than of Harper Lee, but DiCamillo loves her characters more than Steinbeck could ever have loved his.

And after all of that, what is left? A sweet book with some truly heartfelt characters, written with flourish and undeniable skill. It will stand head and shoulders above the sort of cloying children’s literature that can only hold one idea at any given time, and it is well above the other even more putrid sort that can only draw grotesque and cruel sketches of Bad Things That Happen. A terrific book, and if it does not have quite the heart of some of this author’s other works, it is nonetheless a highly recommended read.

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