Book Beat April 11 2001 (2)

Julia Leigh’s debut novel is a mesmerizing tale of survival set in the wilds of Tasmania. It is a story told with economy and precision, yet one that abounds with a sense of intrigue that has the reader quickly turning the pages to find out what happens next.

M, posing as “Martin David, Naturalist,” has gone in search of what may be the last remaining thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, an animal long thought to be extinct. M’s assignment is to find the tiger and harvest its genetic material for biotechnical research. He has no intention, however, of bringing it back alive.

Before embarking on the hunt, M establishes a base camp at the home of Lucy Armstrong and her family. Lucy has kept to her bed in the months since her husband, a naturalist, disappeared on the plateau. No trace of his body was found. Depressed and addicted to tranquilizers, she relies upon sleep to heal her wounds. Meanwhile, her two precocious children, Bike and Sassafras, manage the affairs of the house.

M’s initial forays on the plateau achieve little success. He sets traps and snares, but only captures the ravenous Tasmanian devils that roam the plateau at night. Is the tiger a mere figment of the imagination or a creature that, through keen yet primitive instinct, has managed to elude man and the technology that has encroached upon its environment? M increases the length of his expeditions as he becomes more attuned to his surroundings and the habits of his quarry, patiently awaiting a sign that will confirm the tiger’s existence. It is not long before the hunt becomes a full-blown obsession.

Quite unexpectedly, M, a man “anchored by neither wife nor home, nor by a lover nor even a single friend,” becomes attached to the children during those intervals he spends at the house preparing for his next excursion. At first distant but then more at ease with himself and his hosts, M gradually relinquishes those defenses that make him an expert hunter. His presence instills a new life into the bluestone house. Lucy soon rouses from her slumber and M, seeing her for the first time as a woman, begins to entertain the idea of what it would be like to live there permanently.

This broken family, impoverished and living at the fringe of society, gives M cause to reflect upon his own childhood and the traumas he suffered. M yearns to belong and be needed by others, yet he remains a solitary man. The author delicately raises the question of whether M can reconcile his past with the present. By alternating scenes of warm domesticity with the often harsh conditions M experiences on the plateau, Leigh heightens the conflict within her protagonist and outlines, in even greater relief, the emotional and physical isolation her characters must endure.

Once M steps into the bush, he transforms himself into “the natural man, the man who can see and hear and smell what other men cannot; the man of delicate touch and sinuous movement; the man who can find his way through the bush by day and night and sit motionless through the long hours with his finger married to the trigger.” The alienation and ambivalence he once felt sloughs off of him like a second skin. There is no doubt that M will be ready when the tiger appears. His mind is a machine, a storehouse for facts that will lead him to his prey. “Luck is for the unlucky,” M tells himself, “for those who lack precision.”

M is not, however, without sympathy for the tiger. But is this sympathy enough to prevent him from fulfilling his assignment and rendering the animal extinct? In spare prose that reduces each action and gesture to its essential meaning, Leigh creates a final hunt scene in which M’s pursuit of the tiger acquires an oblique, existential quality, one that further delineates the boundaries of free will and the laws that ensure survival. As M’s search for the tiger progresses, he reverts to an earlier state of human existence, becoming one with the elements, trusting only his senses to guide him. M is an enigma, a cipher. In many ways he knows the tiger better than he knows himself. In the novel’s exciting conclusion, we follow the hunter and the hunted as they approach the “impassable, unimaginable gulf between life and death.”??