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Philip Pullman – The Tiger In The Well

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Twelve years ago a young girl called Charlie bought a book, captivated by the beautiful cover of a gun on a green background and a woman’s silhouette drifting away into the green night. She thought it would make a good candidate for her first “grown-up” book – but then she found out that this was the third in a series so she bought the first two (The Ruby In The Smoke and The Shadow In The North), loving the first but finding the second boring. She never finished the second and so the awesome green book with the gun on it was never read.

Publisher: Point (Scholastic)
Pages: 390
Type: Fiction
Age: YA/Adult
ISBN: 978-1407-11171-1 (a newer version than the one shown)
First Published: 1991
Date Reviewed: 30th June 2010
Rating: 4.5/5

Throughout my older years The Tiger In The Well continued to beckon me from a dusty old shelf and, finally, last year, I decided the time was right – I must re-read the first and finish the second and then read this third book. I liked the first but it wasn’t as compelling as I remembered, however the second was dull, so dull, and I could see why I’d given up on it. And now I’ve read the third and it seems my young intuition was correct – this time Pullman has presented a cracker of a story.

Someone’s after Sally’s money and the daughter fathered by her dead lover, Frederick Garland, claiming that she was married to him (the man after her money) and saying he’d like a divorce due to her scandalous behaviour. Everything seems legit, and it’s starting to eat away at Sally so much that she’s beginning to believe it. At the same time hundreds of Jewish immigrants are being persecuted, and it’s the same faction that are pursuing in both incidences. Sally’s friends Jim and Webster are out of the country but fortunately, due to the plight of the Jews, there are plenty of people who want the faction brought down and unlike her poor excuse for a solicitor these people won’t let them get away with it.

The Tiger In The Well brings the Sally Lockhart Quartet into a new light. Sally is in her mid twenties now and because of this Pullman is able to take the storytelling up a notch, assuming the readers will have grown up too and therefore are old enough to digest the issues he presents without worry. There’s a mass of subplots and extra details in the book, making it a speedy read – there are situations where characters split up and so the narrative has to dart back and forth continuously, but Pullman goes into enough detail before this happens so that you want to hear about each group equally as much and forgetting is impossible. With never a dull moment whatsoever, the long book takes you through chases, hiding places, work in the slums, the high society, the gangs, the big homes, the shabby shelters, the battles, the peace, the sadness, the happiness – it’s all here.

The Victorian setting was good in the last books but Pullman never made the most of it; that’s been rectified here, he describes locations beautifully and makes the past come alive, one can envelope themselves in the plot and although it’s a story centred around hate it’s hard not to wish you were there when Queen Victoria reigned. Orchard House brings pastel greens and white to mind, the streets grey and brown, and the mansion red and gold. Victorian England was a mutely-toned place, but Pullman has pulled out its treasures and put them on display.

Pullman is at his best when writing about women, and he’s on top form here. He likes his women to have guts and be strong of mind but doesn’t load them with the stereotypical sex image you would usually expect. Sally Lockhart is only ever burdened as a woman by the sexist views of her society, away from that she is as good as any man and only ever behaves as men would expect her to when completely overpowered.

Unfortunately the climax is a let-down. After all the preparation Sally has done, when she finally gets to the deepest darkest part, the nucleus of all her problems, the plot is resolved by something outside of anyone’s control. You’re on course, reading swiftly, and then this “thing” happens and suddenly there’s no reason to continue because it’s over and you know you’re never going to get to read about what Pullman had primed you for. The particular setting of this part, a fantastically described house which you can let your imagination go riot on, is magnificent and set the stage perfectly, so why Pullman went for an easy and boring cliché is incomprehensible.

Luckily there is a bit more action to be had after this episode and it’s very funny, so although it doesn’t quite match up it’s worth carrying on. Harriet, Sally’s daughter, goes from posh rich girl to happy average child and the dialogue Pullman gives her is hilarious. Throughout the book Pullman makes a point of giving Harriet a good amount of time and tells us what she’s thinking. And when Sally tells her to be brave, the little two year old remembers it and comes into her own. A toddler being a compelling character all by herself – that’s something you don’t come across every day.

If you are upset by the fact that Jim and Webster are in South America while this is going on never fear. Pullman will more than make up for it by the time you’ve reached the end.

I believe that with a quick bit of research you could read this book without having read the others first, and personally that’s what I would recommend doing. The Tiger In The Well rips it’s claws through the previous books and roars it’s way through from start to finish. It is an excellent book, possibly even surpassing Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

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