The yellow portion of my bookshelf rainbow needed a little boost so I was very happy to receive Téa Obreht’s much hyped The Tiger’s Wife in the mail. It is a wonderfully produced hardback. The cover is really well done. Full marks. It’s very different to the US version which is quite dark and stolid (see right), although I do like the tiger creeping across the top. The differences between the two couldn’t be more pronounced. But I’m not here to judge a book by its cover so it’s on with my musings…
Regular readers will know that I’m a bit partial to magic realism and fable, Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie, Saramago, Grass, Murakami, early Peter Carey, and so-on. Looking at this list makes it seem like I’m a little stuck in the ‘80s and perhaps need to modernise my exposure to more recent speculative fiction from the likes of Neil Gaiman et al, a list to which Obreht can be added.
I picked up The Tiger’s Wife not knowing much about the story, only that it had some magical realist elements. The reason I came to it was that Obreht is coming out for the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few weeks. The only other thing I knew was that Obreht had made it onto the New Yorker’s list of “20 under 40 Fiction” issue, and therefore comes with a lot of hype. Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia and was raised in Belgrade. Her family moved to Cypress in 1992, then Egypt, and then finally to the US in 1997. The Tiger’s Wife deals with the troubled history of her birthplace, and is thus an ambitious book.
I was immediately captivated by prose peppered with vivid details reaching out from the first line, [p1]:
In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park. Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. …
All our senses are engaged, including the one that matters: our sense of wonder at the ritual and the importance of The Jungle Book to her grandfather – something that he carries with him everywhere he goes.
In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Obreht was asked: “What, in your opinion, makes a piece of fiction work?” Her answer was: “When something inexplicable happens in the transfer from writer to reader, and the piece, despite its imperfections, rattles and moves the reader. The best fiction stays with you and changes you.”
Well, this sense of magic that lifts off the page is very much evident in her writing. The animals in the zoo are a pointer to the vivid descriptions which are a hallmark of the rest of the book. A panther, [p3], has “ghost spots paling his oil-slick coat”; and the tigers are “awake and livid, bright with rancour. Stripe-lashed shoulders rolling, they flank one another up and down the narrow causeway of rock, and the smell of them is sour and warm and fills everything.”
Set in an unnamed Balkans country split by the ravages of war, the story itself is divided into two strands: the one in which the now adult Natalia, our grand-daughter narrator, pieces together the last days of her grandfather’s life, and the one in which she recounts the memories of the stories of her grandfather’s life in the mountain village of Galina where he grew up. The two strands wind tighter until they intersect.
Both the grandfather and Natalia are doctors. This is an important distinction – for in times of war these doctors stand outside the conflict and deal with casualties on both sides. And the Balkans conflicts form a backdrop to these stories, stories rife with superstition and characters who are persecuted for being outsiders.
Natalia’s father tells her stories about ‘the deathless man’, a man who cannot die, who he meets gathering the souls of people about to die for his uncle, Death. The grandfather’s life is bound up in the two stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife. These are the more ‘magical realist’ stories and characters. And then there are events which are realist but no less magical, such as the night, in the middle of the war, when the grandfather wakes Natalia, then a youth, and takes her out into the middle of the darkened city where they see an elephant walking up the main drag to the zoo that they can no longer go to because of the war. Apart from the elephant’s handler, they are the only witnesses to the miracle of the elephant being delivered to the zoo. Her grandfather tells her then that this was a story just for them, that it was not to be shared. He says, [p54]:
We’re in a war … the story of war – dates, names, who started it, why – that belongs to everyone. Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before. But something like this – this is yours. It belongs only to you. And Me. Only to us.
There is a strong sense that war is a thing that devours us all, something that comes back to haunt the story later, when the city zoo’s tiger begins to eat itself, starting with its legs. The city’s inhabitants gather at the zoo dressed up as the animals, protesting the bombing. Despite the futility, and the tiger eating itself, there is some hope: for the cubs of the tigress are saved from their mother – who threatens, it seems, to want to eat them – and are raised elsewhere. Whether intended or not, this renewal of life is a nice touch.
Fortunately, just as war devours us all, demeans us all, stories have the power of life. Before the current war there was another and a tiger escaped from the zoo and made its way through the countryside until it found Galina. It terrifies the townsfolk, but it enthrals the young grandfather. It also captures the heart of an abused, deaf-mute woman, a Muslim and thus an outsider, who begins to leave meat for the tiger. She becomes known as the tiger’s wife. There are tales of a great bear hunter and we find out why this woman’s husband is the way he is and what happens when these characters intersect, for they are all after the tiger, all except the tiger’s wife and Natalia’s grandfather. We find out too, how the grandfather got his copy of The Jungle Book, a gift from the apothecary, who has his own story that is told, a story with tragic consequences for the grandfather – the apothecary might have given him his beloved book, but he takes something away from the boy just as important.
The stories are rife with superstition. There is the forty days of quiet mourning that a family undertakes after the death of a family member; the burying of hearts at crossroads; the power of apothecaries; the appearance of the Virgin Mary in water; and the necessity of ensuring that the dead are properly buried. Natalia, for instance, is busy going across the new border and giving medicine to a local orphanage. Staying with a local family who own a vineyard, she sees an extended family digging in the vineyard, almost all day and night, searching for one of their cousins who was killed in the war and buried there hastily. Sickness now stalks their family and they believe it is the soul of the dead man crying out for a proper burial. Again, the war is never too far from the surface. (Landmines still riddle the fields and mountains.) It is here, too, that Natalia tries to track down the man who captivated her grandfather so much: the deathless man.
There are a couple of things which don’t quite work. There is a strange pulling between some of the old stories, a sense that the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The characters have these wild back-stories which seem to want to stand for the story itself. For me the emotional depth comes from some of the stories of the war – how Natalia and her fellow medical students source their cadavers. Her grandfather’s stories are filled with creative imagery, but they don’t quite carry the same emotional punch. We spend a lot of time with, for instance, the deaf-mute’s failed musician husband as a boy. The title is a pointer to this sense too: it was originally the title of a short story, but this novel is no more about the tiger’s wife than it is about Natalia’s grandfather, the deathless man, or Natalia herself. (It is, however, a great title.) But it is with the grandfather talking to Natalia that we feel the impact of all the war when he says [p282-3]: “In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground.”
Does it live up to the hype? Yes and no. The Tiger’s Wife is not perfect. It is though, a very fine debut. The quality of the writing, the vivid details, the great story-telling, the way the past informs the present, the way, too, Obreht casts the devastation and mindlessness of war and persecution, mark her out, not so much as an author to watch, but as someone who we can already enjoy in her sparkling The Tiger’s Wife. The judges of the Orange Prize agree: The Tiger’s Wife has been shortlisted for the 2011 Orange.
I’m looking forward to seeing Téa Obreht at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. And I can’t wait for her next book.
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Orbreht
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)
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