One of my all-time favourite YA novels is Australian writer Leanne Hall’s This is Shyness. It’s an utterly original story about Wildgirl and Wolfboy who cross the liminal border of Grey Street into Shyness, a gritty suburb of perpetual darkness. It blends surrealism with realism in a most memorable way. Even the title is inspired.
It was exciting to meet Leanne in Melbourne last year and hear her speak about Iris and the Tiger (Text Publishing). She described it as a novel for middle graders about art and surrealism. These are two of my favourite topics so I am thrilled that Iris is now published after waiting impatiently to read it!
Twelve-year-old Iris Chen’s parents send her to Spain to spy on her great-aunt Ursula, an elusive character who doesn’t seem to age. Iris’s task is to make sure that Ursula’s estate stays in the family.
The trees surrounding the estate are unlike Australian trees. Iris describes them when she arrives: ‘They were woods you read about in fairytales… Iris could imagine woodcutters and bears and enchantments in their depths; you could get lost in them easily. They’re trees with secrets.’
Surreal elements emerge quickly. Iris sees music notes as ants and is borne-away with boots that she can’t remove. Sunflowers seem to be playing tennis and are featured in one of Uncle James’ paintings. His art, which sells for enormous sums, is most unusual, showcasing an insect in clothes and an old-fashioned car in another. It seems as though characters in some other paintings may have just left the scene: pink legs swim out of an underwater panorama and there is no tiger in the painting ‘Iris and the Tiger’. Iris becomes determined to find the missing tiger.
Great-aunt Ursula contributes to the surrealism and mystery with her instructions for the game of ‘Exquisite Corpse’ in which you draw a head at the top of a piece of paper, fold it over (leaving a small part of the sketch visible), and pass it on to someone else to draw the arms and body, and then the legs and feet. This is a game that was played by surrealist artists such as Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miro and also features in the excellent book, Surrealism for Kids (published by the Qld Art Gallery). The game contributes to the plot in Iris and the Tiger.
Iris makes new friends in Spain, Marcel and Willow, and develops her understanding about what makes a true friend, as well as learning more about herself and her family in this unique, beguiling tale.