By Simon Demetriou
It takes guts to write a very short book. The insecure writer justifies everything, gives everything a motive, a backstory, layer upon layer of detail; they bludgeon you into suspending disbelief. In a very short book, you need the confidence to allow many things just to be. And you need the style to make things captivating, just as they are. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is a very short book, and one whose author amply deserves the confidence her writing displays.
You might be thinking that the title has something of a folksy air about it. You’d be right. In fact, the novella is a 21st Century folk story that spends most of its time retelling another 21st Century folk story. The questing protagonist of the framing story is Chih, a non-binary cleric in a fantasy-version of ancient China, whose task is to travel the northern regions gathering and recording their tales and histories. Naturally, she travels by mammoth, and has a trusty companion: a young, female member of the legendary mammoth corps by the name of Si-Yu.
Needless to say, things don’t go to plan. That’s where the tiger comes in. Tigers, actually. Three of them. When Chih and Si-Yu find themselves facing off against the enormous and deadly set of feline sisters, sheltering themselves between the mammoth’s legs, they have only one defence: story. In an obvious play on One Thousand and One Nights, the tigers allow their prey to live just as long as it takes for Chih to relate her version of the story of the legendary tiger, Ho Thi Thao. This is the second folk-tale, a story of the interspecies, all-female love affair and marriage between the scholar, Dieu, and the murderous but romantic Ho Thi Thao.
As Chih narrates, the tigers chime in with their corrections, in a fascinating look at how stories are contextually dependent, and the polyvalent value of even the most set-in-stone of our legends. It is this interaction that allows the characters to emerge with Vo’s characteristic deftness and humour. Sinh Loan, the foremost of the tiger-sisters, is particularly well-drawn, and her acerbic, supercilious dialogue provides much of the glitter of the book.
You may have noticed that so far, I haven’t mentioned any men. Perhaps the most striking thing that just is in Vo’s world, is the predominance of female – or non-binary – characters, simply because there is no distinction between which roles are open to which genders. There is no militancy here, no justification. It’s just the way things are, because there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be.