THE TIGER’S WIFE by Tea Obreht

Book Quote:

“We’re all entitled to our superstitions.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (MAR 10, 2011)

This spectacular debut novel by the talented Téa Obreht, is narrated mostly through the voice of young Natalia Stefanovi. Shortly after the novel opens, we learn that Natalia has followed in her grandfather’s footsteps and studied medicine. Just recently done with medical school, she has taken on a volunteer assignment to inoculate children in an orphanage in a small seaside village called Brejevina. The book is set in a war-ravaged country in the Balkans, quite possibly Obreht’s native Croatia. Brejevina, Natalia explains, “is forty kilometers east of the new border.”

En route to her volunteer assignment, Natalia finds out about her grandfather’s death in Zdrevkov, a distant town away from home. Nobody in the family can tell why Grandpa would travel so far away from home and die in a strange place. The rest of the family members were not even privy to the one piece of information that Natalia did know: her grandfather was dying from cancer.

Just like the book’s author, Téa Obreht, Natalia too is convinced that place has a lot to do with the shaping of a man’s character. So it is that she sets off to travel to the places visited by her grandfather for some clues about the man she thought she knew, but didn’t quite. “The village of Galina, where my grandfather grew up, does not appear on a map,” she says. “My grandfather never took me there, rarely mentioned it, never expressed longing or curiosity, or a desire to return. My mother could tell me nothing about it; my grandma had never been there. When I finally sought it out, after the inoculations at Brejevina, long after my grandfather’s burial, I went by myself, without telling anyone where I was going.”

The novel’s narrative flows back and forth between two and sometimes even three threads. One part details Obreht’s current journey to the orphanage in Brejevina, her experiences with local superstitions there and eventually her journey to the small town where her grandfather died. Another narrative moves to the past—first to the immediate past shared between Natalia and her grandfather, and then way back further, when the grandfather was a little boy in the tiny village of Galina.

It is in this past that the narrative of the “tiger’s wife” unfolds—the story is a hypnotic mix of old-fashioned folklore compounded by local superstitions and gossip. The tiger that stalks the novel might just be one that Natalia remembers visiting as a child with her grandpa or one which haunted the hills of Galina years ago.

Rudyard Kipling’s famous Jungle Book is an essential element of Obreht’s novel and one can see where the anthropomorphic qualities of Kipling’s classic tales have made their way into Obreht’s prose as well. She does an outstanding job of mixing doses of these qualities with good old folklore and classic storytelling. There’s a very “Once upon a Time” quality to her writing that’s instantly arresting. As the novel progresses, Obreht describes many a colorful character in the town—the apothecary, the town butcher and other assorted characters. Each of these has his or her own special place in the overall story.

Obreht’s favorite novelist, she has said, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One can recognize his influence especially in one story that stands out in the novel—that of Gavran Gaile, the “deathless man.” For various reasons, Natalia comes to believe that her grandfather, just before he died, was on a quest to meet this “deathless man” and she tries to understand why.

The Tiger’s Wife is also a quietly damning indictment about war and Obreht catalogs its ill effects through the ways it affects the grandfather. “In my grandfather’s life, the rituals that followed the war were rituals of renegotiation. All his life, he had been part of the whole—not just part of it, but made up of it. He had been born here, educated there. His name spoke of one place, his accent of another,” Natalia says speaking of the emotional displacement that the war brought about, and which never ever healed.

Above all, Obreht’s greatest strength is her spectacular evocation of place. In an interview with The Atlantic, Obreht has said that she is “very interested in place, and the influences of place on characters.”

“What inspires me most to write is the act of traveling…I like to explore the interactions of people with place and how place influences characters’ decisions, and their conflicts with one another, and also with the place itself.” It is this inspiration that really fuels The Tiger’s Wife. It’s one of the most evocative novels I have read in a long time. Every tiny village in the Balkan country comes alive within its pages.

At 25, Obreht is the youngest on the New Yorker’s famous “20 Under 40” list. The Tiger’s Wife is an extremely auspicious start from a writer to watch. Even if the somewhat disparate threads in the book fall slightly short of tying into a seamless whole, this debut novel is easily one of the year’s best.

Obreht tackles large and complex issues here: war, loss, the sense of place and how it forms who we are. Obreht also shows how strongly superstition ties into that very sense of place. “When confounded by the extremes of life—whether good or bad—people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening,” she writes. While this is universally true, it is especially relevant in the war-torn isolated landscapes that Obreht writes of so evocatively in the book.

Even Grandpa, Natalia finds, couldn’t resist the pull of place and story. Trying to make sense of his fractured country, of his own body that was wasting away, it stands to reason that Grandpa would give in to superstition and try and have his fortune read by the deathless man. After all, as one of the characters in The Tiger’s Wife says, we are all entitled to our superstitions. Even a man of science needs an occasional crutch.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 172 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (March 8, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Another recent novel set in the Balkans:


March 10, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Allegory/Fable, Balkans, Debut Novel

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