Monday, December 12, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The war had altered everything.  Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole.  Previously shared things--landmarks, writers, scientists, histories--had to be doled out according to their new owners.  That Nobel Prize-winner was no longer ours, but theirs; we named our airport after our crazy inventor, who was no longer a communal figure.  And all the while we told ourselves that everything would eventually return to normal.  Page 161

The Tiger's Wife is a story of two doctors of different generations treating people as best they can, confronting situations beyond their control and always dealing with the effects of war.  There are ever present conflicts within the novel that are never dwelled on yet can't be forgotten: we see illness through the eyes of Natalia Stefanovic and her grandfather; anxiety, disbelief and the pressure of dealing with superstitions that seemingly can't be explained; a commingling of Christians and Muslims; and always the threat of regime change.  
The story of The Tiger's Wife is Natalia's grandfather's, though he never gets a chance to talk to the reader.  Instead Natalia recollects story's that were shared with her concerning her grandfather dealing with two notable characters, Gavran Gaile, the Deathless Man and The Tiger's Wife.  These characters, both of which deal heavily with superstition and the quasi-fantastic, are alternately presented in between Natalia's account in the field working to start a clinic for orphans.  Both Natalia and her grandfather are venerated in their profession and yet both are made to deal with illnesses they can't compete with.
Natalia's grandfather grows up in a village, always on the outskirts of war or feeling the impeding pressure of one, where two very unique situations present themselves.  An escaped zoo animal takes up residence outside the village and seemingly finds a friend to aide it's survival in a deaf, mute Mohammedan, the butcher's wife: The Tiger's Wife.  Natalia's grandfather watches as ignorance and misunderstanding of one who can't communicate and has suffered psychologically what no one in the village could know or relate to, turn into hate and present the perfect scapegoat for all the villages problems.           
The Deathless Man has been cursed by his uncle Death to not be able to die for a past offense.  Natalia's grandfather meets him a few times over the course of his life; after being drown, shot in the head, and once on a beautiful night on an outdoor patio while the city is being bomb where they share an incredible meal.  Natalia's grandfather's life was one marked with a great frequency of extraordinary events.  
The story that Natalia's grandfather seeks to tell is very sensitive and wholly compelling.  Unfortunately I don't think the chronological gaps and alternating back-and-forth between Natalia's narrative and that of her grandfather's did anything to enhance the story despite the thematic similarity that two share.  As opposed to something like Nicole Krauss' Great House where the fifty-page, extended vignettes served to strengthen what preceded and comes after The Tiger's Wife left me feeling a bit agitated as any of the novel's vast host of intriguing characters are all built to fit into the place of an omniscient third person narrator.  There's a lot of confusion in The Tiger's Wife as is indicated by the passage I chose to quote at the beginning.  Some things get ironed out, most don't.  It's a melancholy book with an extra heavy dose of anxiety: there is a tiger on the outskirts of town, a war on the horizon or more often than not, a war going on that has since become a part of the peoples lives to the point where it is now just seen as white noise in the background. Much to my surprise, the bouncing around works by the end of the novel.  There were stories within the novel I loved; characters I wanted to know more about; and my heart went out to the eponymous character by the halfway point.  It's rich in allegory and heavy with potential.  Overall, I found it to be spoilt by an overwrought presentation and an inability to focus on a given central idea to fully resonate.

For a much prettier girls take on the same book, check out what Claire has to say.      


Maria said...

I've been hearing a lot about Tiger's Wife. It seems to have made a lot of top lists this year and I've been thinking about picking it up too. Your and Claire's reviews are making me rethink that. I guess we'll see if I am in the mood for something meandering.

Chad Hull said...

The short review is: the 'meat and potatoes' story is phenomenal, if you're willing to wade through the allegorical stuff en route.

Unknown said...

I found her writing beautiful, but was baffled when I got to the end and so much was left unresolved and unclear. More

Chad Hull said...

Yeah, I remember it ending with a bit of a dull 'splat…'

Unknown said...

WOW! What a great pick. Sounds mysterious. It's going on my wish list.

Charmaine Smith (SeaTac Limo Service - Legend Cars)