Knowledge of good and evil: Chris Flynn’s A Tiger in Eden

— This review originally appeared on Liticism

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If narrator Billy Montgomery’s life was an action movie, A Tiger in Edendepicts the time after the credits roll, after the gunshots and the bloodshed when the protagonist rides off into the sunset to some tropical climate to escape their fate. Billy is on the run from the violence and warring of the Troubles back home in Ireland in the mid-nineties, and Flynn gives us the story of what happens afterwards. Billy has escaped to Thailand and, as he quite accurately puts it, is ‘hiding out on some wee island doing nothing but shagging backpackers and eating green chicken curry and getting hammered on Chang.’ In a clever reversal of the Genesis creation story, Flynn’s debut novel looks at what happens when one is forced to remain in Eden rather than being cast out of it. How his protagonist deals with the endless monotony of paradise.

What makes this novel successful is Flynn’s command of his narrator’s Belfast dialect. No-one who was born outside of Belfast could’ve written this prose, and A Tiger in Eden works because it sounds so authentic. The novel is written in the Irish vernacular – all ‘aye’ and ‘aul’ and ‘ye’ and ‘like’ – and the pages are filled with run-on sentences, odd syntax and lack of grammar; the sort of writing that, if composed in Word, would’ve been a sea of red and green squiggly objections.

Though the work is set in the endlessly sunny paradise of Thailand, its real setting is Billy’s mind and the darker story told in flashbacks and memories of the Troubles back home – etched as indelibly onto him as the Loyalist tattoos that he tries to cover. As he writes of the memories that flood to him during a meditation retreat:

amongst it was all the bad stuff wee snippets that jumped to the foreground now and then of me knocking the f-ck out of some Catholic lad tied to a chair or someone falling in a crowd after getting hit in the head by a brick I’d chucked or the sound of a drill bit going through some poor c-nt’s kneecap and worst of all I mean scary as f-ck puts all the rest to shame was the face of our Mark lying on the cobblestones.

It is always a risk for an author to stay locked into the first-person perspective of a character who is in some ways loathsome, but Flynn writes him as a man who has eaten from the tree of good and evil but has ultimately chosen the former. Though this is certainly not a tale of an ‘innocent abroad’, Billy is the sort of uneducated narrator who is able to deliver moments of insight with his clear style: ‘the ultimate loneliness is not when you’re f-cking no one at all sure it’s when you’re trying to f-ck everyone,’ and his growing self-awareness and humility while at a Buddhist monastery are some of the strongest moments in the work,

It was good just looking at the women after that and appreciating them as something beautiful, a wee nape of the neck here a crooked smile there hair like smoke blowing in the wind I’m no poet or nothing I don’t have the words or the sense to be able to describe what I was seeing but you know there’s something humbling about being in the presence of beauty and not just wanting to debase it, this was a new thing for me. For the first time in my life I had this weird feeling down in my gut when I looked at people sort of warm and I hesitate to say this but kinda happy like being on a pill or something only not wanting to dance to Paul Oakenfold.

Almost everything in the novel is narrated in the same rollicking, profanity-ridden style and so while the dark memories lurk in the background, this is overwhelmingly a very funny book. Billy’s language always lends an amusing slant to the narration, but some of the funniest moments in the novel were his throwaway literary critiques:

I headed back to the room to read my book, sure Olly had got me a copy of this wee book called The Outsider by some French c-nt, he said it was brilliant. I wasn’t sure at first but it didn’t take me long getting into it, yer man Camus knew what he was on about, sure it was like he knew what I was thinking. My life wandering about with no   f-cking purpose not even thinking about what I was doing or where I was going next was just like in some of them books, Kerouac and them ones.

All the literary references in the text are chosen carefully, however, with Kafka, Camus and Kerouac working as a sort of metafictional commentary on all the events of the novel.

The ending seemed to come a little too easily, and I think the novel would’ve been far more effective if the title had remained metaphorical. But this is a highly entertaining debut. Billy writes at one point that he thought, ‘maybe I should write it all down one day if I was banged up in the Maze or the Bangkok Hilton or somewhere, it might not be written as nice or nothing ’cos I’m no good with words but you never know some c–t might want to read it if they’re bored as f–k on an aul long bus trip or something.’ If this is the book Billy eventually wrote then it’s far better than that. This is a lively first novel by a writer with a really engaging voice.

– Chris Flynn’s A Tiger in Eden is out now via Text Publishing. RRP $22.95

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