POLLY Clark’s new novel, which is largely set in the vast Siberian taiga, or frozen forest, has some utterly convincing depictions of life there - the privations, the isolation, the magnificent Siberian tigers, the astounding cold. And the reason they convince is that, in late 2017, the poet and author, realising that only first-hand experience would suffice, went out there and saw it all for herself.

The area lies deep in the forest, fully 11 time-zones from the UK, and a five-hour truck journey from Khabarovsk, the nearest city. There are no roads, no mains power and no sanitation, far less a decent phone signal. Over two weeks Clark endured temperatures that sank as low as minus 35C - the temperature at which, in the book, a birch tree explodes “in a deadly spray of wood and ice” at that temperature.

She also learned how to track the Siberian, or Amur, tiger, the largest cat on earth.

“Most people could write about snow and things like that,” she says, “but there’s something just so visceral about that type of cold. It’s such a dry cold, the opposite of what we have here. Actually, I felt colder here - it gets into your bones because of its damp quality. But over there, it’s much drier: it’s much more like fire. If you didn’t have the right clothes on, you might not feel cold immediately but you’d be dead in half an hour. It made such a big difference that I actually experienced it for myself.”

After a brief prologue set in the taiga, the striking novel, Tiger, opens in England. The narrator here is Dr Frieda Bloom, a solitary young woman, an expert on the bonobo, who lands a job at a privately owned zoological park in Devon, which is awaiting the arrival of a rare Siberian tiger.

Bloom’s own story emerges: part of the reason she is the way she is is that she suffered an appalling assault (a police incident report records the details in compelling officialese). At the park in Devon, she manages to find herself again, but an incident involving the tiger leaves her badly injured.

At which point the novel switches to the taiga, where a father and son, Ivan and Tomas, are running a nature reserve and are intent on following the example set by President Putin, whom they admire. Putin, Tomas reminds himself early on, “had saved the Siberian tiger from extinction … alone among Russian leaders [he] had taken the reserves seriously, enforced punishments for any killing of tigers, put his name behind the tiger conservation programmes, the global ones, even.”

The virgin forest of the taiga is bordered by China, Korea and the sea of Japan, says Clark, and the Amur tiger (of which there are currently around 500) has been vulnerable to poaching for body parts and loss of habitat. But strenuous efforts at conservation, coupled with a crackdown on illegal poaching, have enabled it to make a comeback. As the Canadian broadcaster CBC reported in March, “They have survived wars, poaching and extensive habitat loss to claw their way back from just a handful of animals to a renewed position of viability.”

The book recounts in vivid detail not just the customs of the indigenous Udeghe tribe but also the majestic stealth and presence of the Siberian tiger - not least its ability to hold a grudge against human predators.

Polly Clark herself - Toronto-born, now living in Helensburgh and on a houseboat in London - became fascinated with tigers while working as a zookeeper at Edinburgh Zoo.

“My debut novel, Larchfield, which was set in Helensburgh, came out a couple of years ago,” she says. “The idea for Tiger pre-dated all that, so I didn’t have the kind of problem that people writing their second novels have, where they’re almost scratching around for an idea. As a poet I’d written a lot about animals and tigers from my zoo days.

“As for this whole idea of the Siberian tiger having a really long memory and holding a grudge - it’s not like the other tigers, it’s even more that way inclined, because the male patrols a massive territory of 500 square miles. There’s obviously no way for him to police that at all points, so he creates a climate of fear, where any infraction of any kind is punished.

“This requires a massive, long memory. If you shoot the tiger and fail, it will remember you and stake you out, and it will get you. There are some wonderful non-fiction accounts of this, in fact. It’s the only creature apart from people that holds a grudge like that.”

There is one scene near the end when a tigress, having tracked down its quarry, cunningly materialises in a place you might not expect, and you realise the extent of its intelligence.

“In the Siberian forest their camouflage is perfect,” Clark says. “You see them in the zoo and they look exotic, but out there there are a lot of cedars, so the tigers are a very bright browny-orange, and then they have shadows and black, and the white of the snow. They just vanish. And, of course, they are so stealthy.

“The native people traditionally have a supernatural view of the tiger and its abilities. In the book I wanted the tiger to not be a symbolic presence: I want you to read the book and know about the tiger, and know what it is like to be in its territory.

“They’re the apex predator of a whole continent. The perfection of their development and how they fit in and how they manage that environment - it almost becomes as if they’re supernatural.”

When Clark journeyed to her corner of the taiga, she was following in the footsteps of very few other non-Russians. Only about 100 have ever been there, it seems.

“No tourists go there,” she says, “and you don’t really go on safari. It’s not really terribly well-organised. We were five hours into the forest, in a little camp, and going out into the forest proper. You don’t see the tiger; it’s actually a selling-point for the whole arrangement. You see it on camera-traps, and you see these manifestations - the tracks, and the remains of the tiger’s own kills. It’s like a murder scene but you never see the actual creatures. It’s like a kind of spirit.”

Was it a gift for a novelist to venture all the way out to that remote forest region and be presented with such unique conditions?

“Absolutely,” she says. “I have to say that I’m not a great traveller. I didn’t really want to go. Usually, people go to India if they want to look at tigers, because you sit on an elephant and the tigers are just there. When I knew it was these tigers and I would have to go, the build-up was horrendous - getting the visas for Russia and all the rest of it. I just felt really nervous about the whole thing.

“But once I was out there, I loved the simplicity of it all.If you don’t wear the right clothes, you’ll die. You have to follow the tiger’s tracks backwards, not in the direction of travel, because it will come up behind you.”

One small but potentially serious incident that made it into the book came about because, on the first day, and with the forest looking “quite harmless, just like a forest”, Clark and another person on the trip decided to go for a walk.

“We just wandered off,” she laughs. “And within 10 minutes there was just so much mayhem - guns firing into the air, and this guy running up with a flare, shouting, ‘You can’t just go for a walk!’

“Once I’d been there a few days, I realised - ‘My God, of course!’. It really could be so close.

“We saw tracks, half a kilometre from the camp. The tigers are all there, and they’re seeing you. What we did on that first day was incredibly naive, but again, it was a great thing to realise in the flesh, rather than just trying to imagine it.”

* Tiger is published in hardback (£14.99) by riverrun. Polly Clark will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival later this year. For an updated list of author events visit https://pollyclark.co.uk