Terry Fallis takes a bite out of The Tiger

The suspense John Vaillant so brilliantly weaves into The Tiger had my heart pounding as I turned the pages of this remarkable story. Set in the forest near a remote village in the far east of Russia back in 1997, The Tiger turns the tables on the traditional big-game hunting tale. In Vaillant's book, yes, a large animal is tirelessly stalked by a ruthless and skilled hunter. But in this case, the prey is a poacher named Vladimir Markov, while the hunter is a large Siberian tiger with vengeance on his mind.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and perestroika swept across the Soviet Union, it often made life in rural Russia communities even tougher than it was before. This was certainly the case in the Primorye Territory, not far from the Chinese border. Skilled hunters turned to poaching to make ends meet and keep at least some food on the table. Siberian tigers fetched a princely price even though they were protected in the region. After winging a tiger, the hunter Markov becomes the hunted, as the very tiger he wounded terrorizes the area in a relentless and ultimately deadly search for its attacker. This is also the story of Yuri Trush, the Russian conservation official who must track and finally kill the man-eater loose in the forest. The last scene is so tense that I very nearly had to break out the defibrillator and gel up the paddles to get through it.

Vaillant digs into the mystery of Markov's death with a deep commitment to the truth. His original research was painstaking and included trips to the forest at the heart of the story and interviews with the key players still alive. He writes with precision and power. I found his words to be so visual that it almost felt as though I were watching a true-crime documentary. His descriptions paint a very clear picture of the forest and the people and animals inhabiting it.

Rather than Russia in the late 1990s, it almost reads like the Klondike in the 1890s, minus the gold rush. Frontier justice, clapboard cabins, rifles, hunting, hardship and alcohol. The only difference -- there are Siberian tigers in this forest. Replace the tiger with a grizzly bear and you could be forgiven for thinking that this story is set somewhere in northern Canada. So this certainly feels like a Canadian story, even though the only truly Canadian content is the author himself.

Like all great storytelling, The Tiger teaches us lots about history: the history of the region, of tigers, of conservation and of the Russian economy and culture before, and after, the fall of the Soviet Union. These digressions are always very informative and provide thoughtful context for the drama playing out in the forest. They punctuate the Markov vs. tiger vs. Trush narrative, and relieve the tension in what is shaping up to be a fight to the death. I expect the story will also challenge the average reader's vocabulary once in a while, as it did mine. Vaillant writes so well. If the perfect word for a particular sentence happens to be a lesser-known and underappreciated gem of our language, so be it. I happily learned several new and wonderful words in the course of reading these pages.

Beneath it all is a plea to step up efforts to protect wildlife like the Siberian tiger. In fact, a portion of the proceeds of the novel are being donated to various organizations on the front lines of the battle to save this extraordinary creature.

So how will The Tiger play out in the Canada Reads debates? I think the strength of the book lies in the very force of the narrative itself. John Vaillant tells a story very well. Even though we know Markov's fate before the first chapter is finished, the reader hangs on for the ride to discover the tiger's fate, not to mention that of Yuri Trush. Anne-France Goldwater, who strikes me as fearless as the tiger, will probably lean heavily on the power of Vaillant's storytelling.

But how might the defenders of the competing books cast doubt on The Tiger? I suspect you might hear a few comments about those detours in the story, where John Vaillant educates the reader on a range of interesting and relevant topics connected to the plight of the tiger in the Russian wilderness. I found all of these digressions fascinating, but some might suggest they took the reader too far away from the main path, and for too long. We'll find out when the debates commence in early February.

The Tiger is an action-packed, history-filled read. But will the panelists decide that John Vaillant's work has too many tangents?


Terry Fallis is the author of The Best Laid Plans, a satirical novel of Canadian politics that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the 2011 Canada Reads title. It's currently being adapted as a six-part mini-series for CBC Television. His follow-up novel, The High Road, was a finalist for the 2011 Leacock Medal. McClelland & Stewart will publish his third novel in September 2012.

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