I feel for any author who has a work of literary fiction or non-fiction coming out these days. The world's focus is, naturally, on the pandemic and the protests against racism and police violence. The news seems to change hour-by-hour; no wonder that imaginative literature, a product of silence and slow time, can seem a bit out of step.
Which is all to say that Mary Morris' new memoir, All the Way to the Tigers may not be just what you need to read right now, but it may well be something you'll reach for eventually. Rich and unsparing, Morris' slim memoir is a keeper.
Throughout her long career, Morris has written novels and short story collections, but she's best known for her meditative travel memoirs, like her acclaimed 1988 book, Nothing to Declare, about her solitary travels through Latin America. All the Way to the Tigers is very much in this same mode of a two-way travelogue, a journey both within and without.
Morris' wanderings this time are set in motion by cruel happenstance: In the winter of 2008, she and her husband, both avid ice-skaters, decide to spend a few hours zipping around a local rink in Brooklyn. There, Morris tries to execute a pivot and crashes down on her ankle. She refuses to go to the emergency room, makes it home, and after an hour is in such excruciating pain that she and her husband realize they must get to the hospital.
On the way out of their house, Morris loses her balance and falls down the front steps on top of her already injured ankle. As it turns out, her bone is shattered in seven places. Her trauma surgeon will later tell her that "a racehorse ... is put down for less."
Morris initially views her accident as "an unfortunate detour, a brief derailment. Like a flat tire or a wrong turn. A month or so max and I'll be on my feet." What follows instead are two years of being laid up in bed, surgeries and physical therapy; these years change Morris, making her feel vulnerable and sidelined, "as if a locked door stood between me and the world."
But events really don't really "follow" each other in linear fashion in this memoir. Morris writes in short, charged chapters that jump around in time. For instance, we readers know from the get-go that Morris will make it to India three years after that accident to satisfy a longing to see tigers in the wild because the memoir opens with her standing in the chill twilight of a tall grassy meadow in India, waiting for a tiger to emerge.
All the Way to the Tigers is so much more self-aware and expansive than what I've just made it sound like: a privileged white woman's tale of triumph over adversity followed by the reward of what would have once been called "exotic" travel. Certainly, there are vivid sections here where Morris describes her travels, but Morris' passage to India is also a passage deep into the broken places that have shaped who she is. For instance, Morris recognizes that her need to travel derives from the flight instinct she developed in a home dominated by her father's temper:
Over the years friends tell me how brave I am. ... I see nothing courageous in anything I do. I feel safer on a mountain pass, in the snake-infested jungle, or sleeping on a straw mat in some funky border town than I ever did at home.
Morris is drawn to tigers, in particular, because of their hunger and solitude, qualities that, as a writer, she shares. Here's a section of this memoir, one of many, where Morris contemplates the pull of solitude:
It isn't quiet I seek but silence. And not just silence but the profound silence that comes from being alone inside of your head.
Recently I realized that silent is an anagram for listen. It is the voice that comes from the silence that the writer or artist must listen to.
So what is All the Way to the Tigers about? It's a travel memoir for sure, featuring tigers and moments of painful change and solitude and listening. Except for the tigers part, maybe this literary memoir isn't so out of step with our times, after all.