The Tiger’s Wedding
Martin Sisters Publishing 2013
Reviewed by Bob Wake
“Moments of conventional bliss had a way of eluding me,” declares Jake St. Gregory, a young American accountant from dreamland, U.S.A.—Burbank, California—working as an English teacher in Seoul, South Korea. Jake, the 30-year-old protagonist and narrator of James Dante’s wry and wise debut novel, The Tiger’s Wedding, will thoroughly test the multicultural limits of convention and bliss by the finish of his tale.
There’s a tangled romance at the heart of The Tiger’s Wedding, with Jake falling in love with a married Korean woman, an aspiring musician with two young children. Dante finds enough page-turning complications and believable twists to both keep the plot percolating efficiently and to largely sidestep cliches. He grounds his story in solid characterization and skillful depictions of cultural and familial conflicts.
It’s no surprise to learn from his author’s bio that Dante, a Northern Californian by way of New York, spent time teaching in South Korea. The novel is lovingly awash in quotidian details of cuisine and landscape, as well as nightlife high and low. The story avoids lapsing into travelogue while at the same time taking Western readers to locations we’d be curious to see ourselves. Whether or not The Tiger’s Wedding was completed before the viral K-pop YouTube sensation of “Gangnam Style,” Dante’s description of the song’s locale provides an interesting gloss on its Day-Glo milieu:
We rode the subway into Gangnam, a chic section of Seoul. Even below ground, imitation Renaissance statues squirted water into flood-lit pools. Walking from the subway stop to street level involved passing boutiques … I had heard the stories about young Gangnam males who caroused in the nightclubs and eateries, terrorizing the staff and lighting cigarettes with money.
More ominous is Jake’s darkly funny visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone with a photojournalist (a sardonic American from Columbus, Ohio whose character functions at times as Jake’s bad conscience):
On the other side of the border stood a 500-foot flagpole, which supported a 600-pound North Korean flag. Even with the steady wind, the flag hung limp from its own weight. Amplified rhetoric echoed from the enemy side. Through powerful loudspeakers, North Korea continuously reminded the Southern troops that the North had created a Workers’ Paradise. Big deal. In the South they drove Hyundais and listened to rap.
Dante’s strongest creation is the character of Jae-Min, the 33-year-old working mother and abused wife whom Jake befriends and whose life becomes increasingly enmeshed with his own. Jae-Min’s complexity keeps the story off-balance in a compelling manner: she can’t comfortably resolve the multiple conflicts complicating her life. Dante is at his best in showing us her resilience and allowing us, along with Jake, to second-guess—often with shameful inaccuracy—Jae-Min’s behavior.
Labor protests and a growing anti-Americanism in Seoul heighten the climactic sections of the novel. (“Lines of riot police, resembling a thousand Darth Vaders, pushed back with even greater force, knocking people to the ground.”) There’s much to recommend here, from the novel’s careful attention to detail and the shifting allegiances of its characters, to its cultural and political backdrop. The strong excerpts from The Tiger’s Wedding that ran in Rosebud Magazine have more than fulfilled their promise.