The Tiger’s Wife

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The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, book reviewReading The Tiger’s Wife it’s hard to believe not only that this is Tea Obreht’s debut novel, but that she is still only twenty five years old; she writes with such an air of wisdom that one would think that this was the work of a much more experienced writer. In fact, Obreht has been named as one of The New Yorker’s Top Writers Under 40 and she’s actually the youngest of those nominated.

In The Tiger’s Wife Obreht demonstrates why she’s come in for such praise. It’s an immediately gripping novel that effortlessly mixes a contemporary story with ancient folklore. The story set in an unspecified – or possibly fabricated – Balkan country and it is narrated for the main part by Natalia, a young medic who is away doing voluntary work, delivering vaccines to orphans in another part of the former Yugoslavia, when she receives the news that her grandfather, also a doctor, has died in an unknown clinic far away from home having told the rest of the family he was going to join Natalia and her colleague. Natalia sets out to discover what happened to her grandfather, using the stories he told her as a child to guide her search. She also takes with her a battered but much loved copy of The Jungle Book, a story that had much significance for her grandfather.

In between telling the story of learning about her grandfather’s death, Natalia recounts two stories in particular, both of them passed down by her grandfather. The first is from her grandfather’s childhood during the Second World War when a tiger, escaped from the zoo, was discovered outside the mountain village where he lived. The other is the story of a man that her grandfather claims to have encountered while he was a military medic; having been sent to investigate a suspected tuberculosis epidemic in a remote village, the grandfather meets a man who, seemingly, can not die, no matter what injuries he sustains – even being shot in the head.

“It’s an immediately gripping novel that effortlessly mixes a contemporary story with ancient folklore.”

Magical realism is not a genre that would ordinarily appeal to me but the use of a contemporary framework in which to present the folk tales was instrumental in grabbing my attention. However, that’s not to say that the intertwining of the fairytale like stories always works well with the present day narration; sometimes it seems like Obreht is trying a bit too hard and the symbolism misses its mark. As an entire novel there’s a vague disjointedness but regarded as a series of beautiful scenes it’s easier to appreciate Obreht’s talent. The two stories are the threads that hold this patchwork of smaller stories together; the horrors of the war are not overtly described and Obreht has used an original if not always flawless way of portraying them.

That the action takes place in undefined locations was a headache to me at first; it was the Balkan connection that had caught my attention and I must have changed my mind half a dozen times with the first fifty pages as to where I thought different scenes were taking place. Obreht, though, has chosen not to define the locations, even if there’s a strong Balkan flavour to the personalities and events. It doesn’t matter of course; death, the theme that pervades, is not respecter of borders and boundaries. There’s no denying that the sections in which Natalia recounts the stories told to her by her grandfather are beautifully written but for me the highlight of The Tiger’s Wife is how well Obreht brings across the reality of growing up in a time and place defined by violence and the atrocities of war.

The Tiger’s Wife is a challenging but worthwhile read; I can’t claim to have liked it all but there is plenty here to suggest that this author should have a long and successful career in front of her. It’s not a novel that is obvious in its brilliance; I think that is something that comes with time, re-reading and contemplation, and I look forward to revisiting this unusual and haunting story.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Published by Orion Publishing, paperback, Mar 2011
Thanks to publisher for providing a review copy.

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Tiger’s Wife, The
by Tea Obreht

5 Comments on "The Tiger’s Wife"

  1. elkiedee
    16/03/2011 at 12:47 Permalink

    This one’s on the Orange Prize longlist announced today.

  2. Vladimir
    Vladimir
    16/03/2011 at 14:45 Permalink

    Téa Obreht was featured in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Fiction as a youngest author among them. Impressive for a first novel…

  3. elkiedee
    16/03/2011 at 17:04 Permalink

    Karen Russell is another 20 under 40, as is Nicole Krauss (one of the older ones) I think, and is still in her 20s – Russell is longlisted for her first novel/second book, Swamplandia!

  4. elkiedee
    12/04/2011 at 12:00 Permalink

    And this one’s on the Orange Prize shortlist announced today – I ordered a copy the other night, through this site, as it was on offer at a discounted paperback price.

  5. Vladimir
    Vladimir
    08/06/2011 at 20:22 Permalink

    And the winner is…

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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