Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
A great read for lovers of mystery and mythology. The Tiger’s wife successfully intertwines fable and reality whilst detailing with everyday life in war torn Yugoslavia.
Natalia Stefanovi is a doctor on a humanitarian mission to an orphanage when she hears news of her grandfather’s death.
As the story unravels we learn more of her grandfather’s history – how he always carried a copy of The Jungle Book in his pocket and some of the myths he shared with her as a child, in particular the story of the tiger’s wife and that of the deathless man.
This is a book that draws the reader in but simultaneously refuses to give many of its secrets away. The writing is often beautiful and clear with vivid and memorable descriptions and is sparse in dialogue.
Certainly this is a book for lovers of story telling and mystery – indeed it is sometimes difficult to distinguish where fact ends and fiction begins.
SHIPLEY READING GROUP
There are positive and negative things about embarking on a work of fiction when it’s already been labelled as outstanding by experts and has a branded classification – ‘Orange Prize’. I was ready to experience what the judges have found and I was engaged from the first words – the before-chapter-one bit – where the narrator is in the zoo with her grandfather and his bag of vegetables for the animals in cages.
When I had finished reading the book, I had to return to this beginning to understand what I had experienced and learnt through Tea Obreht’s writing because it was an ambitious work of fiction and, at times, I wondered if it was too densely packed.
The author gradually leads us into the geographical and cultural context through the grand daughter’s experiences immediately after her grandfather’s death. She is a medical doctor on a ‘goodwill mission’ to Brejevina orphanage. She has been especially close to her grandfather, himself a doctor, and had known that he had terminal cancer. She was the only member of the family to have been granted this knowledge. Her interactions with her grandmother are at a distance throughout the novel until Natalia returns home with his personal effects on death which she secures from hostile territory. The opening sentences for chapter one are about the necessity of allowing the soul to travel retrospectively through the life of the dead person for forty days. The novel is a living tapestry of this journey. It was only when I returned to the novel’s beginning after living though it that I could be sure what it was about. I am pleased I stayed the journey.
Natalia is remembering the precious tales her grandfather shared with her; one of the most important seems to be the story of the Tiger’s Wife:”.. a girl who loved tigers so much she nearly became one herself”. We are reminded what happened to wild animals in a zoo in former Yugoslavia during the deadly conflicts there. The one in the grandfather’s tale roamed to his village and had a special relationship with a young wife who was deaf and wordless and battered senseless by her abuser husband. The grandfather as a child felt an innocent deep affection for the young wife and for the magnificent wild animal.
Her grandfather had shared with Natalia the tales from the Jungle Book which, in old age, he carries with him at all times like a talisman.
Another parallel tale, which her grandfather has told her is of : ”…the deathless man” -a figure which the grandfather had met twice and could have sought out a final time before death. This character requires the grandfather’s Jungle Book in exchange for the tale of his deathlessness.
As we are taken through piles of tales within tales, we accompany Natalia as she explores what is real and what is fable. The copy of the Jungle Book has disappeared from his personal effects. However a page of the book is left with the tiger’s fur inside it .Is this a remnant of grandfather’s relationship with the tiger and his wife?
For me the work succeeded in taking me through the complex journey of another’s grief and memory and the construction of reality that each of us makes on our own journeys. The tapestry Tea has created is rich, colourful and vivid with details of the conflict within the countries of former Yugoslavia as well as descriptive passages of the everyday – like the parrot that had learned to cry out “Oh! My God! Behold the wonderment” and like the loving detail of the articles in the grandparent’s pantry.
There was also the hint that the grandfather’s identity had been made up of the constituent parts of the former Yugoslavia and when he was decommissioned as a doctor, he was trying to find certainty, belonging and meaning. Perhaps in this way the grandfather is a sort of metaphor in the novel?
Shipley Library Reading Group
1. A lovely mythical story which is interspersed with family life and war between two eastern European countries sharing a border. Contrasts the traditions and ignorance of isolated peasant communities with the present-day. Rating: 9/10
2. An Imaginative, spooky, surreal tale. A time frame would have been useful but too factual for the overall mythical theme.Rating: 7/10
3. A well written mixture of truth and fable which was a bit confusing in parts. Rating: 7/10
4. Imaginative with a wonderful relationship between the grandfather and grand daughter. Rating: 6/10
Burley in Wharfedale Reading Group