Dancing with the Tiger

A tale of art, collectors, drug dealers, the Aztecs, and broken engagements, Lili Wright's Dancing with the Tiger (released July 12) is definitely an engrossing read. I am always dubious reading a book about a culture written by someone who is not of that culture, definitely cautious of the exploitation that can easily happen. The book centers around Mexican mask-folk art - those who collect the masks and those who make the masks. I think Wright shines best when writing from the perspective of the protagonist, Anna, even though I wish we didn't get all of her backstory at the very, very end. Anna is a 30-year old New Yorker who breaks off her engagement and travels to Oaxaca, Mexico to collect a mask for her father, said to be Montezuma II's funerary mask. (For those of you lacking on your Mexican history: Montezuma II was killed during the Conquistador conquest of the Aztec Empire). Anna is not the only one who wants the mask: there is a rival collector, the looter who found it, a drug lord and his hired gunman... they are all searching for this mask. I liked how the perspectives alternated, and everyone got labels except for Anna: there was "The Gardener," "The Looter," "The Collector," etc. It made the characters almost larger-than-life. My initial hesitation (Wright is not Mexican, and writing a story using Mexican traditions and characters) was proved a bit true, when I felt the story at times reduced some of its characters to mere stereotypes without nuance. That is not to say I didn't enjoy the story. I thought the descriptions were fantastic, and the pace zipped along. For example: as Anna is driving in the Mexican countryside with a painter, Salvador, she observes colorful laundry drying on a line and says, "One day, I want to make a book of photographs of only clotheslines." And he responds: "You think it is beautiful, and all they want is a dryer." And that small exchange of dialogue made me wonder if the writer was self-aware that she was writing about a culture that was not her own. At times, it was very hard to feel sympathetic for Anna, but maybe the literary world needs more female anti-heroes? I loved when the perspective switched to some more magical realism perspective - like "The Dogs" ("It was past midnight and the dogs of Oaxaca were howling again. The first dog howled at the sight of danger...") or "Santa Muerte" (the Saint of Death, "No one ever asks me how I do what I do..."). A fun read and definitely made me want to learn more about folk religion of Mexico. It also raised interesting questions of collecting and international museums. Rating: ★★★

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