Kate Winslet is working on the film of this Canadian novel, and it already has that true Titanic shape: an old woman remembering her sexy, glamorous youth. But the blonde heroine will grapple with five husbands, an asylum (where she is incarcerated for loathing sex with one of them), mad 1920s circus extravaganzas and the world's most dangerous predator.
The real Mabel Stark, America's most famous tiger trainer ("The story that leading ladies were invented for," says Winslet), was launched as the Titanic sank. Robert Hough trawled circus archives to research her life. She started in circus as a stripper in 1909 but hung around the big cat cages and starred in a lions-and-tigers act in 1910; by 1920 her wrestling bouts with a tiger called Rajah made her the best-known cat act in America. She confessed to a friend what that was really about: Rajah jerked himself off each night as he pinned Mabel to the sawdust.
Her superstar gloss faded; by the mid-Thirties she was working for a Florida theme park, where she killed herself in 1968. She had five husbands and no children. She died alone, her body a mass of mauling-scars.
Hough has fictionalised this outline, giving Mabel a lot of hang-ups, a traumatised past, a terror of happiness and a tough-sentimental voice. (Mabel begins her sentences with "Was", omitting "It"; irritating at first, it grows on you.) Her gift for working with tigers is explained by her power to read in their eyes what they are thinking.
This is an easy, pacey read. Having researched tiger-training, circuses, hospitals, asylums, prisons and railroads, Hough brings the milieu to lurid, sometimes witty life. He posits a violent loneliness in Mabel and connects the tigers with it. The husband she loves most is named Art.
Hough did not make up this name, but does milk its symbolism. Mabel's tiger act is true, worked-for art. She gentles tigers until they move in perfect synchronicity. (Rival acts that edge her out of business are products of ugly sensationalism; they brutalise their tigers.) But Mabel is most famous, none the less, for sex-wrestling with Rajah. Her beloved Art suggests Mabel's true art lies in her multiple-tiger acts, not rolls with Rajah.
So what about Rajah, whom Mabel raised from a cub, and sleeps with? Several husbands object to sharing the marital bed with a tiger. Rajah has been flung out of hotel bedrooms and exiled to the floor (or a cage, where he mopes). He takes against Art, and it is Mabel's fault that her one love murders the other. This is her "final confession". It glitters with symbolism. Art's, says the story, is savagely conflicted, lonely, self-fearful sexuality: a very dangerous business.
The research Hough never did was to look a real tiger in the face. Mabel often admires her tigers' "kelp-green, emerald green" eyes and sable, iridescent whiskers. But apart from the blue-eyed white tigers bred in American zoos, tigers' eyes are butter-khaki and their whiskers white. It doesn't spoil the story, but you do wish, on Mabel's behalf, he had gone and looked.