A marvelous debut, winner of a Canadian literary prize, about the life and amazing adventures of the greatest female tiger trainer in circus history are narrated with delicious humor and warmth.
The story’s presented as the somewhat discordant autobiography-in-progress (“there’ll be times when I take liberties with this thing called order”) of “Mabel Stark.” Born Mary Haynie in Kentucky to a family of luckless tobacco farmers, Mabel is orphaned early in life, trained as a nurse, and married young (to a patient who’s particularly needy sexually). She recounts the ordeal of the mental hospital that husband Dimitri Aganosticus has her committed to, her escape and experiences (as a “cooch dancer”) with a traveling carnival, another failed marriage, and the discovery of her true calling with the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus—where she learns to “work” the big cats, marries lion tamer Louis Roth, and meets the real love of her life: a stunningly beautiful Bengal tiger cub that grows into her 550-pound partner, Rajah, in a world-famous “wrestling act.” Tales of success and fame with Ringling Brothers are juxtaposed with grimmer accounts of Mabel’s declining years at a moribund animal park (“Jungleland”). All, though, is told in a vivid and cantankerous comic voice (reminiscent of the voice of Jack Crabb in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man) alive with self-deprecating wit and truculent cussedness. The Ringling years are brilliantly detailed, as is the story of Mabel’s happy but cruelly brief fifth marriage to part-Indian ex-con “ménage boss” Art Rooney. The descriptions of animals and of in-the-ring routines are equally irresistible. And Rajah is a glorious character: a regal presence, given to adolescent moodiness, with a forceful personality and a very considerable sexual presence.
Just about perfect. One of the most entertaining novels in many a year.