There is nothing sentimental in Clark’s treatment of the relations between her human characters and the animals they care for. Nor does she shrink from showing that, no matter how dedicated to science and conservation they are, there is an unavoidable harshness in the confinement of animals in cages. There are scenes from which the more tender-hearted reader may choose to turn away. Clark shows us nature red in tooth and claw and human claws may be as sharp as a tiger’s. Clark may have come to novel-writing in middle-age, but she is anything but a tyro. She writes a clear and vigorous prose. She is as comfortable with narrative as with description – not always the case with poets who turn to prose fiction. It says something for her skill that she eventually makes even her self-pitying Frieda acceptable, while her evocation of the terrifying wastes of the taiga and the grim horrors of a Siberian winter represents a real and memorable achievement.
Evoking non-human minds demands a great deal of a fiction writer: the imagination to grasp and convey the instincts, habitats and characteristics of other species; the time, money, humility and charm to conduct deep research; and the restraint to avoid obvious pitfalls of anthropomorphism, zoological pedantry and romanticisation. Undaunted, Clark cut her teeth as a zookeeper in Edinburgh, then travelled to the forests of Siberia to track Amur tigers. The resulting novel is a startling, gore-splattered, nerve-racking exploration of how human and animal territories – both physical and psychic – collide. Here she is on a pregnant tiger, “always a tail tip away from catastrophe”, hunting... Clark’s human protagonists are also fierce, wary, endangered creatures, either by nature or circumstance... Combining the propulsiveness of a thriller with the raw yet meditative tone of a memoir, Clark writes with a poet’s ear and a naturalist’s eye, and has a deep grasp of the profound contract between indigenous peoples and the beasts they revere. She never loses sight of the endangered creature that forms the beating heart of a passionate, remarkable and uplifting novel.
Clark’s exotic and at times bemusingly off-target imagery initially threatens to get the better of her, while the novel’s broad-brush latter sections are on the functional side.
But it all comes together in the end, in what is ultimately an impassioned celebration of second chances.