‘Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs…’
A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic – Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book. Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather’s death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realises he may have died searching for ‘the deathless man’, a vagabond who was said to be immortal.
Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger’s wife. (The Nile)
Much has been written about Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, the surprise winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011. I confess I know much less than I should about the history of the former Yugoslavia, and so cannot comment on the veracity of the novel’s historical context. Nor can I comment on whether the folklore of the region has been misrepresented.
What I can say however is that Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is one of the most unusual, and perhaps because of that, intriguing literary novels I have read in some time.
One must suspend one’s belief and to some extent a critical eye, to fully appreciate this novel’s experience. I say ‘experience’, because the reader is led through a mystical chain of events where the line between reality and childlike fantasy is irretrievably blurred. Although at times approaching decadence, Obreht does hit the mark on many occasions, with evocative passages with an appealing undertone of rebellion.
All his life, my grandfather would remember the sensation of standing in the warmth of the apothecary’s shop, staring into the cage of the apothecary’s great red ibis, quiet and stern. The shop represented a magnificent kind of order, the kind of pleasurable symmetry you just couldn’t get from coming home with the right number of sheep.
In The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht also displays maturity beyond her years, with reflections of great sorrow and profundity.
When your fight has purpose – to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent – it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling – when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event – there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.
The Orange Prize celebrates ‘excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world’. In my opinion, Obreht has not yet quite reached excellence in her writing, but I can understand why The Tiger’s Wife ticked the box for originality and perhaps accessibility in the judging panel’s eyes. The mystical treatment of what is at heart such a sad subject matter, could bring such war time atrocities to the attention of a wider audience. If it has that effect, then one cannot question its merit.
I highly recommend The Tiger’s Wife for lovers of literature and look forward to seeing what Obreht will share with us in the future.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5
Genre: Mystery, Historical, Drama, Literature, Fantasy
Author Information: Téa Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia and raised in Belgrade. In 1992 her family moved to Cyprus and then to Egypt, where she learned to speak and read English, eventually immigrating to the United States in 1997. After graduating from the University of Southern California, Téa received her MFA in Fiction from the Creative Writing Program at Cornell University in 2009. At 25, Tea is the youngest-ever author to have won the Orange Prize for Fiction. (Courtesy www.orangeprize.co.uk )
– See Tea Obreht’s website