The story immediately intrigued Baldwin, inspiring her to travel to Europe, seek out the places where Noor lived, interview the people who knew her and discover more about the enigmatic woman. The Giller Prize finalist The Tiger Claw — Baldwin’s follow-up novel to her award-winning What The Body Remembers — was born from the silences, conflicting stories and significant gaps she discovered along the way.
As the novel begins, we’re thrown into a bleak German prison cell with Noor, where she is shackled hand and foot and freezing from the winter’s cold. It is December 1943, the turning point in the war raging in Europe. Noor’s captor, Herr Vogel, allows her onionskin paper on which he directs her to write children’s stories. She does so, but also secretly writes letters to someone she addresses as “ma petite,” the spirit of the child she had conceived with Armand Rivkin, a French Jewish musician and the love of her life. Although she must keep the letters hidden from her captor, it is through these words to her unborn child, alternating with a thrilling third-person narrative, that we learn Noor’s courageous and heartbreaking story.
Noor’s mother is an American from Boston who married a Sufi musician and teacher from India. Growing up in France, Noor is extremely close with her liberal Muslim father, but when he dies, Noor’s conservative uncle Tajuddin and her brother Kabir govern the family.
Uncle Tajuddin and Kabir disapprove of Noor’s love for Armand, and as the men of the family in 1930s France, they have the legal right to stop her engagement. Noor is faced then with the choice between defying her family and turning against her heart. She stops seeing Armand, but is devastated and lonely. Once the war begins, Noor’s family heads to England while Armand’s family stays.
When Germany invades France, Noor despairs of ever seeing Armand again, until Kabir unwittingly introduces her to his new friend who is recruiting bilingual women for the resistance. Noor is offered training, and she accepts. She will help defeat the Germans, but her true purpose will be to find and reunite with Armand.
As a resistance agent, Noor trains to be a radio operator, taking on a second identity — Nora Baker — one of many names she will eventually assume. When she arrives in France, she plays Anne-Marie Régnier — a woman caring for her sick aunt — and to other spies in her resistance network, she is known as “Madeleine.”
She has secret rendezvous with other agents, transmits messages from various safe houses, and risks capture at every turn. She rents an apartment across the street from Drancy, the concentration camp where she knows Armand is being held. At great peril, she sends him a message — the tiger claw pendant she always wears for luck and courage.
Noor must wade her way through oppression and hypocrisy from all sides: h her beloved Armand could be killed by the Germans at any time; her French and British colleagues fight the occupation of France while Britain still occupies India; she learns of dark family secrets; and, one by one, members of the spy network are being ratted out by a double agent. Betrayal can come from anyone.
We know from the beginning that Noor will end up imprisoned, but who betrays her? Will she ever be released? Will Kabir find her? Will she and Armand be reunited? Baldwin paces the story like a nail-biting thriller, revealing only a little bit at a time.
The Tiger Claw is packed with complex characters riding the line between good and evil. In the end, it is the reader who must be the judge, and decide where he or she stands.
1. Shauna Singh Baldwin once said in an interview, “Fiction is telling a lie in order to tell the truth,” and in The Tiger Claw she has told the story of Noor Khan using more than just the known facts. What can we learn from fiction that can’t be learned from non-fiction? Should imagination be allowed to tell history?
2. Noor assumes many different names — Noor Khan, Nora Baker, Anne-Marie Régnier, Madeleine, Princess Noor — and in some ways she doesn’t seem completely comfortable in any one of them. What do her various identities allow her to express? Which ones suit her most?
3. Noor is often in dialogue with Allah, asking favours, making promises and reaffirming her faith. How does Noor rely on her religious beliefs to motivate herself, explain the actions of others and come to terms with the worst that befalls her?
4. Noor says at one point, “I’m a member of every tribe,” to which Viennot responds, “It’s very dangerous thinking. One must know very definitely to which tribe one belongs.” In what ways does Noor’s allegiance with so many different nationalities and races hurt her? How does it help her?
5. Near the beginning, when Kabir is searching for Noor, he comes across German soldiers wishing to surrender. As he considers what will happen to them now that the war is over, he wonders, “How much retaliation had really been necessary?” From what you know of Kabir’s character, what do you think his answer would be? Would Noor wish for retaliation against her captors?
6. Noor says, “Someone always regulates my surroundings, affecting the air I breathe. Other people’s decisions have governed each moment of my life.” What are some examples of these oppressive forces? In what ways does Noor take her life into her own hands?
7. Herr Vogel, the German officer who keeps Noor hostage is certainly cast as a bad and lascivious character, and yet he also works to give Noor better accommodations and provides the paper on which much of the story is being told. To what extent do Vogel’s kindnesses redeem him of the evil he commits and stands by to witness? Are there other characters in the novel for whom you have ambiguous feelings?
8. Colonization and oppression of peoples, countries and individuals is a driving theme in The Tiger Claw. Noor feels that the British are hypocrites when they denounce German occupation, because they too have been colonizers, in India. What other forms of colonization are present in the novel, and how blind are the various colonizers to their own wrongdoing?
9. Noor is betrayed numerous times in the novel. While in prison, she says, “We all have to believe we’re doing right or we’d kill ourselves.” How would Noor’s various betrayers justify their actions?
10. On one level, The Tiger Claw is a simple love story about a woman who must face obstacles — both small and great — to reach the one she loves. On another level, Noor follows the Sufi path to realization of herself as a woman and as a human being. How does she overcome or accept obstacles? Does love win in the end? Which other characters in the novel are propelled by what they call love?