Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright by Justine Saracen

Tyger Tyger Burning Bright is not your standard lesfic. This is a fascinating novel that spans an eleven year period, from the filming of the Triumph of Will during the 1934 German Party Congress in Nuremberg to the end of WW II in 1945. Saracen blends historical and fictional characters seamlessly and brings authenticity to the story, focusing on the impacts of this time on “regular, normal people” who find themselves dragged into events that they neither expected nor wanted and how it transformed each of them for better or for worse. Tyger Tyger isn’t a book about blame or right and wrong – it is a book that stays in the gray, raising a number of questions and issues in the reader’s mind that will stay with you long after you close the cover.

For this review, both MEC and Nikki read the book and discussed it in a rather disjointed IM session that has since been scrubbed of all Nikki’s profanity and reorganized a bit to make it a bit easier to follow. Our conversation was spirited as there are so many things in this book that we wanted to discuss and many of the topics led us down some rather interesting conversation trails. Hopefully we’ve captured that.

MEC: First off, I really enjoyed the book. I didn’t read the back blurb because I didn’t want to spoil anything and I liked Saracen’s other books. The Swastika on the cover let me know when/where this was going to be set but I had no clue how she was going to approach it. So going in, I didn’t really know what to expect – and found myself surprised again and again while I made my way through it. There was an element of romance, but this is more of a historical that has lesbian and gay characters rather than a lesbian or gay romance that is set in a historical timeframe.

NIKKI: I actually read the blurb when I first saw the book but didn’t remember any of it when I picked it up to read. I’m glad I didn’t, as I felt a few important plot points were given away in the blurb. I agree the romance is a minor plot point. The author does an excellent job focusing primarily on the arcs of the characters set against the tumultuous timeline. The book is very visual, with nods to photography and propaganda films that were integral to the Nazi party. One of the biggest images that happens near the beginning (after the Triumph of Will) is the portrayal of 13 individuals in a photo reminiscent of the Last Supper. These characters will be revisited throughout the story, but most of the book is told from Katja’s perspective, with some time devoted to all four major characters. However, the perspective does shift eventually to nearly all the original 13 characters, which I found jarring at first, but got used to. I can understand why the author chose to jump to the different perspectives, as all characters in the story undergo some form of transformation in order to survive. Whether it be through silence/ambivalence, subterfuge, forced recruitment, or outright terrorism.

MEC: I totally agree. Saracen uses some wonderful imagery and symbolism throughout the book. One of the things I found particularly thought-provoking was the debate of art versus propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl and her crew all believed that they were creating art – images, symbolism and the themes of the Volk. But these movies were commissioned by and were a powerful tool of the Nazi party – fueling the nationalist propaganda and promoting the idea of the superiority and power that the Germans had and should have. Words and images have so much power – how much responsibility do those who create them have, and how easily they can be used irresponsibly. And it’s still happening today – turn on any 24 hour news show or documentary and there’s an agenda. The book spans such a long time (over ten years) and touches on only some of the key events. Luckily, or unluckily, this is one of the most documented times in history – there is a tremendous amount of information, opinion, interpretation on the rise and fall of the Third Reich. I actually spent a fair amount of time googling and following links and was impressed at how much she wove in to the story – and although it is a timeframe we all know about, there were details I found in the book and in my searches that I didn’t know and my own further reading left me even more disturbed.

NIKKI: I agree that the use of propaganda/imagery is a timeless idea, very applicable to every generation, particularly today. I really enjoyed how the author was able to demonstrate a variety of perspectives in the characters’ responses to the Nazi agenda. Some embraced the ideals wholeheartedly, while others ignored the ugliness while supporting the positives of a flourishing economy. Still more fought in any way they felt they could. What I found most interesting was the author’s ability to show that it can be difficult to find “right” and “wrong” in times of war. Predators can easily become victims, and the innocent can easily become the beast. As stated in the book, “The company chaplain keeps praying for a time when the lion will lie down with the lamb. But he doesn’t want to accept the terrible fact that the lion IS the lamb.”

Can we truly blame someone who is forced into serving the Third Reich? It’s easy to hate those that willingly and knowingly inflict pain on others. But what about those that must choose between their life and a strangers? And can anyone really know what choice they would make unless they were facing down the barrel of a gun? The author fully explores these complicated issues admirably, and I found her writing very impressive. That isn’t to say there weren’t issues. The shifting points of view really could be quite distracting, and throughout the book, characters were able to find each other way too conveniently for my comfort. But overall, a brilliantly written novel.

MEC:  What can I add that Nikki hasn’t already stated so eloquently? If not for my need to have the last word, I’d leave you with Nikki’s final thoughts.   As I stated before – this is a historical novel that has elements of romance; but, it also has elements of suspense, horror, pathos and it gives the reader quite a bit to think about.   It’s fast-paced and I found it difficult to put down because; although I know at a high level what was going to happen next from a historical perspective, I had to know what was going to happen to the main characters – and some of the things that happen are heartbreaking.  This is an excellent book that easily blurs the line between lesfic and mainstream – I definitely recommend it.

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright by Justine Saracen