Strange Horizons, May 21, 2012
Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft
It’s been a good month at Strange Horizons, culminating this week with Nghi Vo’s lovely “Tiger Stripes.” Although to some extent what’s good for the reader isn’t necessarily good for the reviewer. Vo has certainly made my week difficult, as I’ve nothing to complain about in this review unless I resort to pointing out the two grammatical errors I found in the story. And without complaining – my one superpower – what have I got to do? A rehash of the story’s plot isn’t much of a review.
Well, I have to say something. This annoyingly excellent story, set in a magical East of an unspecified time, is about the widowed peasant Thanh. Like so many others from her village, she lost her husband to conscription and war, the omnipresent background to Vo’s setting. All the inhabitants of the small town live in constant fear of the soldiers who come periodically to take away their sons and husbands.
Thanh’s son, Danh, provides for her by fishing, and the pair are relatively content – until the day Danh doesn’t return from a trip to fish the river’s banks. Thanh searches for Danh and finds him – devoured by the tiger still guarding his corpse. Overcome by grief, Thanh approaches the corpse of her son, and the surprised tiger remarks upon her lack of fear.
Ah, how I hated stories with talking animals as a child! In fact, I’m still not very fond of them. Despite the story’s solid prose I readied myself to start disliking it. Only I didn’t. Maybe what happens from here is predictable. The tiger, in human form, appears during Thanh’s period of grieving to apologize for killing her son and to bring an offering of food. Thanh is cold and angry, of course, but the tiger keeps visiting with gifts of meat and fish, and a relationship grows between them.
What wasn’t predictable was the story’s skillful balance in examining and developing both Thanh and the tiger. They are strong and even likeable characters, and Vo cleverly maintains an awkwardness to their interactions; even as they become friends they fail to understand each other in significant ways. The alien-ness of human to animal and animal to human is never overcome just because animals can take on human form and make themselves heard. This crucial point is handled naturally through Vo’s descriptions of Thanh’s interactions with the tiger, and never belaboured, but it places “Tiger Stripes” light-years beyond so many other fantasy stories in which animals and humans interact.
And yet the similarities between the two kingdoms are clear. Tigers, too, suffer from the problem of war, and Thanh grows to fear losing her new friend just as she lost her husband, just as she and every other parent in her village feared losing their sons. Tiger warfare is different and incomprehensible to humans, but the threat of loss – that is an unavoidable reality which Thanh must deal with. Her clever response to the threat affirms the strong connection between human and animal kingdoms without sacrificing the unique distance Vo has drawn between the two. Nothing slipped in this story – the tone was consistently perfect: sad, painful, full of threat but also acceptance. Even the one abrupt lurch in narrative position near the end of the story worked for me. I have no criticisms for Vo, only congratulations.