SF Said, illustrated by Dave McKean
(David Fickling Books 2022)
Review by Sita Brahmachari
After reading Tyger I had a dream about the heavens opening and glimpsed a tiger’s paw padding through soot-thickened clouds! It was an image straight out of one of William Blake’s illustrations, one of the artists and poets who have been such an inspiration to SF Said in writing this novel. Like all the best children’s stories, it is a book that will resonate across generations and cultures. From the opening words, ‘It happened in the 21st Century when London was still the capital of an Empire, and the Empire still ruled the world…’ to the last, it doesn’t feel like an overstatement to say that Said’s storytelling, married with David McKean’s illustration, is a work of alchemy long in the mulling (it took nine years to write).
Tyger begins with an echo of Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. It unfolds in the time of the shortest days and the longest, darkest of nights when storytelling must be at its most enlightening. We meet Adam Alhambra as he attempts to cross the borders of a London ghetto to do his delivery work for his parents’ upholstery shop – a Soho border heavily guarded by soldiers. He is questioned and asked as a ‘foreigner’ to show his papers. On spotting his name, ‘Alhambra’, his London credentials no longer hold water with the Guard who interrogates him, ‘Where are you really from?’ We learn that Adam’s family come from the Middle East – that he was born in London is of no account to the soldier.
Said’s world-building combines familiar and strange references so that we feel a simultaneity, and a connection of past and present, that runs between fissures in our world today to a time of slavery and colonial rule. Readers will feel the contemporary resonances of knife crime, racism and inequality, yet Tyger is set in a land ruled by an Emperor, where hanging still takes place, and tigers appear to be extinct. Here it is not only humans who are enslaved but the animals, exhibited in cages from all the corners of the far reaches of an Empire – in a memorably named exhibition, ‘Maldehyde’s Menagerie.’
While fleeing from the threat of knife crime, Adam is amazed to discover a wounded, talking tiger in the rubble of an abandoned building. Tyger asks him to find the Guardians that can help save the world. So begins a magical quest that takes its compelling young characters – with wide diaspora roots and branches – on an epic journey through the doors of perception and imagination. A quest to find the sparks of light within themselves and others that might mean the world can be saved.
Through the glorious Tyger, Said’s imagination offers readers a chance to roam free from the confines of reality across mythical, magical, borderless territories, and to ask the huge questions that have been asked by humans across time, faiths, cultures, histories and lands. ‘I’m just a boy, a foreigner. What power can I have?’ This is the question Adam asks of Tyger when she charges him to help move the world from a place of darkness back into light.
The adventure story moves swiftly and compellingly across the city of London with its underwater rivers, from the Ghetto where Adam and his friend, Zadie (whose true name is Sheherazade) live and work, to the fields of Highgate grazed by sheep. It’s a journey inspired by a walk taken by William Blake, mapped out in the book. Said is mapping a golden thread of possibility that the enslaved peoples of the former Empire and the working-class poor, rather than being pitched against each other, may unite. Blake’s seeking spirit of equality and justice is never far away from Tyger’s heart.
Art and storytelling are the secret, forbidden superpowers of Adam and Zadie, enslaved as they are in the Ghetto without formal schooling. But they are rooted in their Middle Eastern heritages and share much in common with the religious and storytelling traditions of ‘The Arabian Nights’ as told by that Sheherezade. Tyger has the perfect balance of classic and timeless storytelling, and it’s a page turner. Places that are the most dangerous and cruel seem to be where these powers have been forgotten. The future of our world depends on our success in finding where the sparks of light and empathy can be drawn out of these buried places.
In the exquisitely beautiful hardback publication, the visual storytelling by McKean is an integral part of the book. There are aerial and tiger’s eye views of London, intimate and magical drawings of Adam discovering the injured Tyger on a rubbish-heap, as well as abstract expressions of flight, hope and dreaming. Said’s Tyger is a brightly burning hope–light of a story told with humanity, grace and fearful symmetry. Readers will fall in love with Tyger, as I did, and through her their hearts will be strengthened and the hope-light re-charged.