Between the Covers
Thomas Hobbes described life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Equally the description could be applied to the history of white people in Tasmania, the setting for Judy Nunn's 'new bestseller' Tiger Men.
The 600-page book, however, is none of those. Tiger Men traces the history of several intersecting Tasmanian families over several generations, beginning in 1837 and finishing after the end of World War I.
Between the family dramas Nunn includes a fiction within a fiction of The Tiger's Tale, a sympathetic story about the deliberate extermination of the Thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger.
She does a good job of colouring early colonial Van Dieman's Land, touching on the horrific treatment and massacres of Tasmanian Aboriginal people at the hands of white colonists.
The novel begins with the story of Mick O'Callaghan, a former Irish freedom fighter who found passage on a ship to Van Diemen's Land rather than face his former comrades at arms, whom he betrayed.
Nunn does a good job of getting into and behind her characters; their actions are always true to their personalities, giving depth and authenticity.
Tiger Men refers not only to the Thylacine hunters who took advantage of double-dipping on bounties from farmers and companies but also encompasses the men who see a chance for personal advantage and take it without hesitation.
Perhaps this is the broad theme the characters were supposed to have in common but, if so, it wasn't enough to support such a long novel.
If a book is to succeed in historical fiction and actually become a bestseller, as opposed to merely claim it in its first print run, it has to be a real page-turner, one of those books where you're desperate to grab every spare five minutes to find out what happens next.
Tiger Men is not pacy enough to hold sustained interest. Just when you start to care about one family group you move on to the next generation.
The only other book I've ever been so glad had family trees was The Lord of the Rings - and I didn't need to reference that one as frequently.
By the time the third generation of characters was being blown up at Gallipoli or rescuing each other at the Somme I couldn't remember who was whose cousin or whose family had wronged whom - and I'd stopped caring.
Tiger Men begins strongly and has some fine parts but would have benefited from stricter editing; it could have lost a chunk of pages and been a much better book for it.