As soon as I had finished this book I wanted to go back to the beginning and read it all over again.
The story starts with a murder of a rather sleazy family man, Anwar Sadat, but we already know who has committed it- what is important is why. The murderer is a sweet young man called Margio who within him conceals a supernatural female white tiger. What I loved most about this book was not only the sensual imagery of papaya, prayer and cigarette smoke but also the drama and the suspense. Kurniawan holds the reader in his grip until the very end with characters that crackle with romance and violence.
Despite the myth of the white tiger this isn’t exactly magical realism but a layered and moving story deeply embedded in its culture. We don’t go forward in time from the murder, we go back. Back to Margio’s family, his victim’s family and the way they are closely knitted together. Kurniawan’s writing can be striking and cinematic with the immediateness of the crime genre but he can also give us clouds of atmosphere that portray the steamy tense landscape of Indonesia with the memory of Japanese occupation and structure of Islamic tradition. Overall I loved his ability to take my breath away with a single scene.
His feet brought him to the cell. He stood by the door, watching Margio shiver on the mattress, hoping that the secret would be revealed with a simple question. But bitterness and pity weighed on him, preventing him from speaking and as he struggled Margio turned to him and understood his unspoken question.
“It wasn’t me, “he said calmly and without guilt. “There is a tiger inside my body.”
I read through this quickly- it’s as gripping and page turning as a murder mystery and yet there are layers underneath that would make for satisfying second reading. The way Kurniawan portrays the million tiny grievances that build up into a storm reflects the violent history of his country and the way a storm can break over anything in its path in misdirected rage. By the end of the tale we understand why Margio did what he did and we can appreciate the tragedy and randomness of it.