Dancing with the Tiger
I was utterly fascinated by Lili Wright’s (Learning to Float: The Journey of a Woman, a Dog, and Just Enough Men) somewhat fictional retelling of her time and career in Mexico. When I started Dancing with the Tiger, I had no particular interest in ancient Mayan artifacts or the artistic traditions of the Aztec community, but this story seemed to pull a new intrigue out of me.
Drugs, guns, and values also come into play in this tumultuous modern day novel. There’s a welcome absence of fetishizing non-white characters as “exotic,” and there are plenty of elegant descriptions of violence, danger, and desperation. Like a sweltering desert, each page contains vast amounts of threatening mysteries. Each page is paced as if we the readers decided to embark on this journey with the protagonist herself. Wright captures what sounds like an extremely long day in Mexico City’s most dangerous neighborhoods, into succinct chapters. Interestingly, the scenes that take place in Mexico City seem to have a never-ending outpouring of characters, while America seems to house only the protagonist Anna, her narcissistic, art-curating ex-fiancee, and her artistically discredited, occasionally endearing, widowed, alcoholic father.
To me, an author’s personal connection with their fictional story can always be spotted by how confidently they retell it, including the surplus of auditory and tactile details, and the writer’s ability to just make up new words that make complete sense (ex. twigger = tweaker + digger, a grave robber who uncovers expensive artifacts from below the ground to sell for more drugs). The most affecting aspects of Dancing with the Tiger, though, were the narratives of the minor characters, like Salvador the gardener, his lover the paper shop girl, or the Santa Lesbiana housekeeper, who generously cooks, cleans, and cares for gangsters while offering their hostage victims cannabis from her apron.
While it reads a little like a spiritual manual for anyone inclined to visit a spiritual guru in a metropolis underground, the setting and – dare I say it – aura of this book still spoke to me on so many levels, be it through chanting, meditations, prayer, or murmurings. Even what seemed like dull nothings being spoken aloud was actually a conversation within the broken marriage of two characters. And like her father, Anna is almost conflictingly likable. At the same time I found myself shaking the book with frustration, I turned the page to find I couldn’t abandon her.
As the novel came to a close, I slowly began to notice each of the character’s metaphorical masks. They all wore one, if not for protection, then for the purposes of scaring the living daylights out of someone else. At times, I questioned the book’s Mexican authenticity, but it was probably less an issue of research (Wright lived and studied in Mexico for two years) and more about her perspective as a white North American. (The New York Times book review for Dancing with the Tiger touches on this as well). Overall, I could re-read this book two or three times and still enjoy every moment with eyes wide open.
Muser Tip: Hmm... looks like we can expect a film version of this thriller in the future!