THE TIGER’S WIFE by Tea Obreht
“Weâ€™re all entitled to our superstitions.”
Review by Poornima Apte Â (MAR 10, 2011)
This spectacular debut novel by the talented TĂ©a Obreht, is narrated mostly through the voice of young Natalia Stefanovi. Shortly after the novel opens, we learn that Natalia has followed in her grandfatherâ€™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 Obrehtâ€™s native Croatia. Brejevina, Natalia explains, â€śis forty kilometers east of the new border.â€ť
En route to her volunteer assignment, Natalia finds out about her grandfatherâ€™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 bookâ€™s author, TĂ©a Obreht, Natalia too is convinced that place has a lot to do with the shaping of a manâ€™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 didnâ€™t quite. â€śThe village of Galina, where my grandfather grew up, does not appear on a map,â€ť she says. â€śMy 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 grandfatherâ€™s burial, I went by myself, without telling anyone where I was going.â€ť
The novelâ€™s narrative flows back and forth between two and sometimes even three threads. One part details Obrehtâ€™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 pastâ€”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 â€śtigerâ€™s wifeâ€ť unfoldsâ€”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 Kiplingâ€™s famous Jungle Book is an essential element of Obrehtâ€™s novel and one can see where the anthropomorphic qualities of Kiplingâ€™s classic tales have made their way into Obrehtâ€™s prose as well. She does an outstanding job of mixing doses of these qualities with good old folklore and classic storytelling. Thereâ€™s a very â€śOnce upon a Timeâ€ť quality to her writing thatâ€™s instantly arresting. As the novel progresses, Obreht describes many a colorful character in the townâ€”the apothecary, the town butcher and other assorted characters. Each of these has his or her own special place in the overall story.
Obrehtâ€™s favorite novelist, she has said, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One can recognize his influence especially in one story that stands out in the novelâ€”that of Gavran Gaile, the â€śdeathless man.â€ť For various reasons, Natalia comes to believe that her grandfather, just before he died, was on a quest to meet this â€śdeathless manâ€ť and she tries to understand why.
The Tigerâ€™s Wife is also a quietly damning indictment about war and Obreht catalogs its ill effects through the ways it affects the grandfather. â€śIn my grandfatherâ€™s life, the rituals that followed the war were rituals of renegotiation. All his life, he had been part of the wholeâ€”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,â€ť Natalia says speaking of the emotional displacement that the war brought about, and which never ever healed.
Above all, Obrehtâ€™s greatest strength is her spectacular evocation of place. In an interview with The Atlantic, Obreht has said that she is â€śvery interested in place, and the influences of place on characters.â€ť
â€śWhat inspires me most to write is the act of travelingâ€¦I like to explore the interactions of people with place and how place influences charactersâ€™ decisions, and their conflicts with one another, and also with the place itself.â€ť It is this inspiration that really fuels The Tigerâ€™s Wife. Itâ€™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 Yorkerâ€™s famous â€ś20 Under 40â€ť list. The Tigerâ€™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 yearâ€™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. â€śWhen confounded by the extremes of lifeâ€”whether good or badâ€”people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening,â€ť 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, couldnâ€™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 Tigerâ€™s Wife says, we are all entitled to our superstitions. Even a man of science needs an occasional crutch.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 172 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Random House (March 8, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||TĂ©a Obreht|
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Another recent novel set in the Balkans:
- The Tiger’s Wife (March 2011)