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It isn't a comfortable book to read, and it's precisely because it isn't that it can be both heart-breaking and inspiring.

The first time I read Tiger, Tiger, a memoir by Margaux Fragoso about her childhood and relationship with a man forty-four years her senior, I was thinking about whether we should look to acquire and publish the book. Later that day I found myself walking home still engrossed by Margaux's writing. I couldn't shake her voice, her story, from my mind. It was heart-stopping: absorbing and complex, subtle and disturbing. The voice – Margaux's voice – and her experiences inhabited me, not only while I was reading but for a long time after.

When Margaux was seven she met Peter. They were friends, soul mates and lovers. Peter was fifty-one. They had a relationship for fifteen years. In the Prologue, Margaux asks us to “picture a girl of seven or so, who loves red gumballs that come from gumball machines but leaves behind the blues and greens … a child who fears her father and dislikes puzzles (boring!); a child who likes dogs and rabbits and iguanas and Italian ices … a child who hates to go home (ever) because Peter’s house is like a zoo, and most of all because Peter is fun, Peter is just like her”.  One of Tiger, Tiger's noticeable traits is the lack of filtering of experience: when Margaux is seven, the reader is seven too. It’s hard to read how this girl, afraid of her father and drawn to Peter because he seems to offer the love and stability that is lacking at home, works to create their friendship. It makes his slow, stealthy betrayal of this desire to be loved harder to bear. And it helps Margaux Fragoso show exactly how Peter can create a world that only he and Margaux inhabit, a world secured by layers of silence, a world that Peter describes as a healthy one. As Margaux grows older, she begins to realise that this world is not a wonderful secret after all, but a shameful one. And the reader realises too. 

Since we published Tiger, Tiger there have been many responses, from readers and critics, psychologists and interviewers. Whether positive or negative, they are all responses to Fragoso's voice: its ability to sit under the skin, to place the complexities of the relationship between victim and abuser emotionally inside the reader. For one reviewer, this ability is its greatest fault: "the fact that [Fragoso] is talented makes this book almost as troubling as its awful subject matter … it pushes the horror onto the reader, who is forced to conjure up all the shame and revulsion that is missing in the text."

But perhaps this is Margaux Fragoso's greatest strength. Tiger, Tiger exposes the power of shame.

We feel shame when we know we've done something dishonourable, or when something dishonourable has been done to us. Shame keeps people silent. Tiger, Tiger is full of discussions of shame and honour. Margaux's father is almost obsessively concerned with his reputation, with supposed slights from family members and employers. Peter is at pains to convince Margaux that it's the outside world that's at fault, that their "love" is pure, but the world can't accept it. Margaux, when she begins to make friends at high school, is acutely aware of how her experience sets her apart, but not with the longed-for cachet of cool that is every teenager's dream. Sometimes Margaux's world seems a conspiracy of silence: what is happening to Margaux is too shameful for anyone to bear, and so it is left alone. Perhaps Tiger, Tiger shows us that shame is a paedophile's weapon, and that it is in the very act of writing that Margaux Fragoso is freeing not only herself but the reader, speaking as one reviewer said, in a voice that is 'loud and it is beautiful'. It is not the 'dismal, lowering read' that it was for others, but a redemptive, inspiring one: it triumphs over what it recounts.

Perhaps this is why I continue, a year and a half after I first read it, to hear the voice in my head, to feel the need to work through its meanings. It is certainly its honesty, its force, that made it necessary and important for many at Penguin to support the book. Hasn't Margaux's voice been controlled enough without needing to be controlled now? Because isn't this the point of literature, to inspire and challenge us, to expand our empathy?

 

Helen Conford
Editorial Director, Penguin Press

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