Heather's Reviews > The Tiger in the Well

The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman
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's review
Aug 07, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, kids-ya, library-books, mystery

** spoiler alert ** Though The Tiger in the Well is a Sally Lockhart Mystery, the "mystery" isn't so mysterious: the identity of the villain becomes apparent pretty early in the book—or, in my case, earlier: the back cover of the edition I read makes it pretty clear. But that doesn't make the book any less satisfying or even any less suspenseful: the excitement is in seeing how the different plot threads will tie together, in seeing where the connections are.

But let me backtrack. (Note: it's difficult to talk about this book without mentioning some key events from the end of the last one, so if you're spoiler-averse, you might just want to stop reading now.) When the book opens, in 1881, Sally's twenty-five and living happily in Twickenham with her daughter Harriet (who's almost two) and Jim Taylor and Webster Garland, though Webster and Jim are off taking photographs in South America, leaving Sally and Harriet home with the servants. Sally's still a financial consultant and, indeed, her business is growing: she has an office in the City, a business partner, and a clerk. Her work satisfies her and her home-life is happy, even though she's basically a widow and still grieves for Fred Garland, whom she would have married if he'd lived.

Sally's happy world is shattered, though, one morning when a man with an official-looking envelope arrives. Sally opens it and finds that she's being sued for divorce—by a man she's never heard of, a commission agent named Parrish. He says they were married in 1879 but that she deserted their household, and it gets worse from there: the divorce suit also claims she's a drunkard and an unfit mother; this stranger who claims to have been married to Sally is also claiming custody of "their" daughter. It's bizarre and creepy and creates an immediate atmosphere of menace that just keeps growing: someone knows where Sally lives, knows her full name (she's really Veronica, not Sally), knows Harriet's full name and birthdate, knows that Webster and Jim are out of town, and has timed and devised this whole nasty scheme, for no reason that Sally can think of. It gets creepier as Sally starts to realize how far in advance this plot must have been laid and how much care has been taken: when she goes to check the marriage register of the church where she was supposedly wed, there is an entry there for her and Parrish, duly witnessed by two more people she's never heard of, duly signed by the priest.

Given the evidence of the marriage register, and also given Sally's horrible and condescending and judgmental pair of lawyers, the court case against her can't go well. Sally does the only thing she can think of, which is to go into hiding with her daughter, with Parrish and the police in pursuit. But it's far from easy: this being Victorian England, once the court has found in favor of Parrish, he, as Sally's husband, can claim her money and property, which of course he does, making Sally not just a fugitive but a broke fugitive, fighting an enemy she hasn't yet managed to identify, with no money or safety or space or time to think.

Meanwhile—and here's where things get interesting—Jewish immigrants are arriving in London in greater numbers, fleeing the pogroms of Russia, and someone is—or many someones are—taking advantage of them, extorting money, pushing women into prostitution, and worse, stirring up anti-Semitism and hatching plans for violence. The man behind a lot of this is known, ironically, as the Tzaddik (which means "righteous one," though clearly he's not), and another man, a socialist journalist named Daniel Goldberg, is trying to get to the bottom of the Tzaddik's dirty business. Which, it seems, is often carried out by none other than Parrish.

And so of course it ends up being all tied together, the nastiness Goldberg's investigating and the nastiness Sally's stuck in. (One of the great pleasures of the book is the scene in which the two of them meet, both of them smart and fierce and formidable.) The double plotline keeps things from getting too claustrophobically focused on Sally's nightmarish situation, as it expands the cast of characters but also the whole view of the book, bringing in more of London and more of the larger world, and also bringing in a social conscience, as Sally learns more about how the poor of London live. I loved this passage, when Sally walks through Lambeth one day when she's feeling particularly stressed and realizes that the city she knows isn't the only city:

She didn't know this side of the river, and before long she was lost. That suited her; if she didn't know where she was, no one else would either. Long terraces of mean little dwellings, railway bridges, a prison, a hospital, chapels, a grand square of elegant eighteenth-century houses, an engineering works, a market, a workhouse, a theater, houses, houses, houses; a cricket ground, a gas works, a brewery, a stable, a builder's yard, a railway station, a school; grim blocks of artisans' dwellings, more houses, an asylum for the blind, a printing works ...

She'd had no idea of the vastness of London, despite having lived in the city for so long. After all, she usually passed through it on a train while reading a newspaper or making notes; she knew London as an idea, not as a reality. (114)

Though the climax of the book is plagued by a deus ex machina plot development, by that point I was so invested in Sally and Goldberg and the story that I didn't really mind. I think this is by far the best of the Sally Lockhart mysteries—the smartest, the best-written, the most full of London.

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