National Book Award nominee Samantha Mabry returns with a ghostly tale of four Latinx sisters – three of them living, one dead.
The Torres sisters are a charismatic but prickly bunch, always straining against their widower father’s smothering grip and trying to figure out how to run towards something better. But when Ana, the eldest, falls to her death trying to sneak out her bedroom window one night, it shatters her sisters and leaves them alone with their regrets and fears.
Jessica lashes out and tries to become Ana, losing herself in the process. Iridian withdraws completely into Ana’s favorite books and the pieces of stories that Iridian scratches into notebooks. And Rosa turns to her faith and the obsessive belief that somehow, the wild animals in their neighborhood can tell her something important about Ana and her untimely death.
It’s true that Ana has a message for her sisters, but she’ll find her own way to communicate it. Writing appears on the wall, shadows flicker, and the laughter of a dead girl rattles the Torres household: Ana may be dead, but she’s not gone. Her ghost is haunting her sisters, trying to lead them, just like she did in life. But with each of them so buried in their own, unique way of experiencing grief, her message may only serve to push them further apart.
Like Mabry’s previous books, I found that Tigers, Not Daughters is all about the atmosphere and feelings. The small town where the Torres sisters dwell feels so real that you can hear the patter of rain on the windshield of Jessica’s car as she drives around, and smell the funk of Iridian’s over-used blankets where she nests, depressed on the couch. Each sister is a portrait of the different ways to repress rage and grief, and all the healthy and unhealthy techniques we use to cope when things get terrible. The Torres sisters are very much like a pack of the titular tigers — caged, but still wild and searching for a way out … if they don’t tear each other to pieces first.
Mabry makes use of an interwoven framing narrative to show us these caged girls from an outside perspective. We sometimes see them through the eyes of a group of boys from the neighborhood, who note their highs and lows with a sort of awed reverence. These sections from the boys’ point of view are reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides, a connection which Mabry notes in the acknowledgements. It never feels derivative of this, though, nor of King Lear, another story about sisters with a problematic father (whence comes the title, Tigers, Not Daughters). This book is its own piece of art — albeit one that feels in conversation with its inspirations.
Mabry’s language and tone are both lush and poetic, but that doesn’t stop these tiger girls from having teeth. And they’re going to need them, because the men who orbit the Torres sisters are a disappointing mix of manipulators, screw-ups, and voyeurs. From their father to Jessica’s awful boyfriend to the impotent spy-boys next door, it’s no wonder that they are struggling to deal with their grief — they’re swimming in a soup of toxic masculinity. But not to worry — comeuppance and just desserts aplenty will be had when the walls of the cage come down.
Ghost stories can be a lot of different things. They can horrify, they can sadden, and they can even soothe an aching heart. Although Tigers, Not Daughters is completely literal in its approach to the genre, there’s a sense that Ana would be manifest for her sisters even if the story didn’t dip its toes into the supernatural. Her clothes, her books, her boyfriend, her perfume — everything that made up Ana lingers around her sisters, creating the sense that a haunting doesn’t really require a ghost at all.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.