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Originally published August 28, 2010 at 7:03 PM | Page modified August 30, 2010 at 3:57 PM

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Book review

'The Tiger': John Vaillant's mesmerizing tale of a man-eating tiger, vengeance and survival

Book review: John Vaillant's "The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival" tells the mesmerizing true-life story of the hunt for a man-killing Siberian tiger. Vaillant, the Canadian author who wrote the acclaimed 2005 book "The Golden Spruce," discusses his book in September at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. and Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

John Vaillant

The author of "The Tiger" will discuss his book at these area locations: at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com). Vaillant will also read at 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

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'The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival'

by John Vaillant

Knopf, 329 pp., $26.95

In the middle of a brutal Siberian winter 13 years ago, a rare breed of tiger killed two men, in attacks about a week apart, near a remote Russian village not far from the Chinese border.

Normally, such an occurrence would attract little attention in the English-speaking Western world. But the deaths received attention because of multiple factors: First, tigers seldom kill humans. Second, the specific breed of tiger involved is so rare it is a protected species, because its extinction is a real worry. Third, the men deputized to stop the carnage experienced something so rare as to defy belief.

If ever the maxim "truth is stranger than fiction" applies, it applies to the saga told in "The Tiger" by Canadian author John Vaillant, author of 2005's "The Golden Spruce."

Not so incidentally, if ever a nonfiction author has used the techniques of fiction any better to recount a real-life narrative, it is difficult to imagine who that author would be. For readers who enjoy literary nonfiction, think of Vaillant as a younger version of John McPhee, but on steroids.

The reporting is awesomely detailed, as in McPhee's narratives for The New Yorker magazine and in his books. The phrasing is precise, much like McPhee's. McPhee's writing, however, does not call attention to itself, at least not attention in the sense of flamboyant. Vaillant's writing is flamboyant, but almost never in a show-offy kind of way. The word "lyrical" comes close.

Vaillant builds the story around five characters, three of them human, one of them an animal and one the vast natural world: Markov, the first villager killed by the tiger; Pochepaya, the second villager killed by the tiger; Trush, whose job entails protecting the endangered tiger species from poachers while simultaneously capturing the rare renegade tiger; the tiger itself, a predator perhaps at least 9 feet long and weighing at least 500 pounds; plus the region of the Russian Far East known as Primorye, about the size of Washington state.

Throughout the narrative, Vaillant explores the central question of why the tiger attacked Markov. Vaillant comes dangerously close to anthropomorphizing the tiger, as he marshals evidence that the tiger was seeking revenge. Revenge for what? Markov, a talented hunter-gatherer practicing subsistence living, might have stolen meat from one of the tiger's animal kills.

Before Markov died, mauled by the tiger, he shot a rifle round that wounded the magnificent animal. Because of the wound, the tiger could no longer kill other animals with efficiency, so focused instead on a second vulnerable human — Pochepaya by name, who unwisely left the village on what he intended as a day trip, leaving despite warnings that a human-eating tiger might be lurking.

Trush is the most fully developed character, almost certainly because he is still alive. Vaillant, after all, could not interview Markov and Pochepaya. A mix of a conservationist with a badge and an apprehender of felonious poachers, Trush is a man's man with a thoughtful streak. He comes across as a hero of sorts, heightened by the details of what occurs when Trush himself is attacked by the tiger being tracked.

The balance of nature is at stake, a precarious balance perhaps more vital than a human life or a tiger's life.

In the Epilogue, as Vaillant wrestles with what his narrative means, he mentions that humans "have found themselves in charge of the tiger's fate. This is not a burden anyone consciously chose, but it is ours nonetheless. It is an extraordinary power for one species to wield over another, and it represents a test of sorts. The results will be in shortly."

Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books.

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