Johanna Skibsrud
Hamish Hamilton, 2018
231 pages
ISBN 978-0735234567

Reviewed by Braedan Zimmer

“One day—long after the end of this world and into the beginning of the next—the director unlocked the gates to the first museum that had existed in nearly four thousand years, and the people streamed in.”

The opening of “Outside,” a story about a museum that houses selections from all of human history, is an example of the abstract nature of Johanna Skibsrud’s short story collection, Tiger, Tiger. Skibsrud, winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists, conjures up narratives each more speculative than the last.

“The Last Frontier” relates the short account of Sabrina Lowe-Mackey, who, along with six others, stars in a reality television show that records their trip to Mars. Things take a turn for the worst when the show’s ratings drop and “nobody talked anymore about future seasons—and nobody talked about bringing the pioneers home.”

“The Origin of Species” is a taxidermist’s first-person account of a “strange ball of light” that appears in the sky just after dusk, and hisfiancé of three years’ disappearance shortly after.

The final story of the collection, “The Rememberer,” details a last-ditch effort to preserve 200,000 years of accumulated knowledge in the mind of a six-year-old girl with “a virtually limitless power of recall.”

Skibsrud’s stories investigate the human condition, with a particular emphasis on how this condition might change in the future. Her skilful prose is philosophical and reflective, and the reader is often struck by the stark truths she illuminates, beautifully and precisely, in the unlikeliest of moments.

However, as a result of her emphasis on the philosophical, many of her characters share a similar sense of existential dread, and their voices often bleed into one another. Moreover, as captivating as her story premises are, Skibsrud at times sacrifices idiosyncrasy of character for inventiveness of plot. In some of her stories, especially those that feel more experimental, the characters take a decidedly back seat to the effect she is trying to create[1] 

That being said, some of her stories hit just the right note; none more powerfully than the title story, “Tiger, Tiger,” which explores a scientist’s career insecurities and the tension it creates in his marriage. He faces a moral predicament when he acquires the genetic material necessary to reanimate the long-extinct tiger: “We had married during the dodo craze; Franziska was still in graduate school then. There had been no reason to suspect that my career would not continue as promisingly as it had begun. It wasn’t long, however, before I was more than eclipsed.”

Everything considered, it is hard to imagine that anyone could read Tiger, Tiger without being captured by at least one of Skibsrud’s 12 fascinating narratives. The final lines of “The Last Frontier” attest to the eerie majesty of her prose: “They were being cut off, Sabrina understood, finally. The realization had been slow at first, but she couldn’t fool herself forever: it had been a long time since she’d felt that “real time” was progressing toward anything—well, real. No, it wouldn’t be long at all, she lamented candidly into the camera one night, until the red planet’s first pioneers were left to themselves, the camera gaping at them uselessly above. Until there was no one left to cut or edit or rearrange, let alone to actually witness the material of their lives.”

In addition, a few of her stories feel as though they come to an almost arbitrary ending before they’ve even properly begun, and the reader is left feeling satisfied by neither a sense of character development nor well-executed plot.

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