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Reading '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.
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 no 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.
When i first got a copy of this I was dubious, it's not my usual reading genre and lacks the usual lasers, cyborgs and alien stuff. I like the drawing of the lady on the front cover snuggling up with a tiger. I was intrigued by the whole presentation; was this to be the tale of Tony T.Tiger? No. Don't be silly. Next you'll want spoilers in a review.
Its an incredibly well written story, the style is gripping and evocative - I gave a damn about many of the characters and, don't laugh at me, got choked up a the end.
The Tigers Wife is told from the perspective of a Granddaughter Doctor who learns that her grandfather has died; she reminisces over her childhood and a tale that her Grandfather told her at various chapters of her life regarding 'The Deathless Man'. I guess you could say that there were two stories told in the book but they're 'both' part of the narrative and intrinsic to the plot. The story is essentially one of death, traditions and acceptance with a dash of The Jungle Book (the original Rudyard Kipling, not the cartoon) and a number of surreal moments. It does also show the provincial nature of many small towns. The parts with the tiger are simply beautiful, the scene with the elephant is incredible and weirdly believable. You feel for the Butchers Wife.
Tea's first novel is a wonderful read, I read the whole thing cover to cover over a weekend and it is quite frankly one of the best books i've read in the past three months. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone; they will make a movie of this someday so you should get a copy in and read it soon because nothing will top your imagination.
Having read the book, I have now also listened to the audio book which features Robin Sachs reading as the grandfather. It was really enjoyable and much like the book, recommended.