When I heard about the premise of this debut novel I couldn’t wait to get my grubby mitts on it. And so, when an advanced proof copy arrived on my desk just before I jetted off on my holidays, Dancing with the Tiger queue-jumped its way to the top of my gigantic to-read pile and became my first poolside read of 2016.
The plot revolves around a much-desired ancient mask thought to be the death mask of Aztec emperor Montezuma the second. With its distinctive blue face, the drug addicted looter who discovers the mask in a Mexican cave is confident that he has stumbled across something of great monetary and historical value. Of course, he’s right and as word of his discovery spreads, the priceless mask attracts the attentions of three art collectors each desperate to add it to their own collection. Reyes is a Mexican drug lord, Thomas Malone is a wealthy collector and Daniel Ramsey is his friendly American rival whose own reputation and that of his daughter Anna are in tatters after their book on Mexican masks has been widely discredited. For Anna and her father securing ownership of the Montezuma mask is their best chance of regaining respect in the art world and of creating a collection worthy of Anna’s deceased mother’s name. Propelled by her sense of family duty and a desire to run away from home after being betrayed by her love-rat fiancé, Anna sets off for Mexico. But her mission to acquire a piece of art quickly dissolves into a seedy and dangerous quest to get back to America alive as Anna realises that her competition is violent, clever and ruthless.
The novel is told in mostly short, very punchy chapters, narrated in the third person. The character focus shifts at each chapter juncture to follow Anna, the looter and Hugo the gardener, who works for Thomas Malone and has been sent by Reyes to claim the mask. Narrative depth and interest is added by the chapters concerning a supporting cast of intricately related characters. In addition to Anna, Hugo and the looter we meet Hugo’s wife Soledad who is housekeeper to Thomas Malone, a beautiful young girl working in a paper shop who Hugo is having an affair with, a Mexican artist called Salvador who wants to keep Mexico’s treasures in their homeland, Thomas Malone’s erratic and glamorous wife Constance, a pregnant girl named Chelo who the looter meets on a bus and Pedro the pool cleaner who is partnered with Hugo to track down the mask on behalf of Reyes. The effect of so many narrative strands, which are constantly switching and overlapping is an impressively complex and winding story, which never fails to leave the reader with a staccato-style, cliff-hanger chapter end.
Dancing with the Tiger is perfect holiday read. It’s a book that races along with glamour, sexiness and drama aplenty and its themes of art, theft and adventure provide some much-needed escapism (unless your day job is art theft!). Plot aside, there are also some strikingly memorable observations to be found in Lili Wright’s Mexican adventure tale. Two that really stayed in my mind were an early description of an archetypal art-crowd at a museum reception:
“Gay men in tight pants and tangerine neckties. Pale nymphs in tafetta miniskirts or cowgirl braids or Clark Kent glasses, trying to prove they could be beautiful no matter how badly they dressed.”
And a simple, but surprisingly tender physical description (which moved me when I read it, but which I struggled to track down again for the purpose of this blog entry, so please excuse me if this is a slight misquote):
“Her hair was so straight, it broke his heart.”
I think a lot of people will really love this novel, however I wasn’t completely convinced, despite the appeal I found in its themes. Generally, I’m quite a fan of short chapters, but I found the pacing of Dancing with the Tiger a bit anti-climatic. There’s so much drama in this novel and it’s so tightly packed that the rhythm created is one of swiftly setting up one plot point, resolving it and then introducing another soon after. Because of this, I found that there wasn’t much room for a real sense of suspense to develop. My only other criticism is that I felt some of the characters, particularly Anna, lacked the emotional complexity required to make them believable. It’s true that there are times when we are granted glimpses of Anna’s more vulnerable side, when she tells Salvador about her mother’s death, for instance. But – for a woman who has been cheated on by her fiancé, who is almost killed on copious occasions, who is almost raped, who has lost her mother, whose father is a recovering alcoholic (etcetera, etcetera) – Anna is as at best impressively gumptious and at worst too foolish to feel any trepidation at the danger repeatedly puts herself in.
It’s tricky to wrap up how I feel about Dancing with the Tiger. I can definitely see myself recommending this book it’s a smart, sexy summer read with pace, vibrancy and a really interesting mix of characters, which I think will appeal to a lot of readers. Unfortunately because I couldn’t believe fully in Anna’s plight, some of the story’s impact was a bit lost on me. I’d love to hear what other readers think of this book once it’s published (or if, like me, you’re lucky enough to get to read an advanced copy).