Posts Tagged ‘Tea Obreht’

The Dilettante’s Rules of Reading: #47: “Any novel that uses the word ‘menagerie’ must be good.” 

Indeed!  So you can perhaps imagine my high level of expectation for a novel that uses ‘menagerie’ in its title, right?   And right from the open, Jamrach’s Menagerie doesn’t disappoint.  It kicks-off with these wonderful lines:

I was born twice.  First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began

Immediately engaging, it reminded me of the vivid start to Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, (see my review here), which ironically won the 2011 Orange Prize beating out a strong shortlist — and the long-listed Jamrach’s Menagerie.      

So sets in motion the story of Jaffy Brown, recounted in the first person, who is rescued out of the jaws of the tiger by Mr Jamrach himself.  Mr Jamrach has Tim Linver, a boy near Jaffy’s age, buy Jaffy a raspberry puff, perhaps in part to purchase his silence.  For a poor boy like Jaffy, such a treat is a wonder, but the taste of the raspberry puff comes back to haunt him later in the book in a way that he couldn’t at that point imagine.  Jamrach offers him a job working in his menagerie, into which exotic animals from all over the world are brought back in order to satisfy the curiosity of rich gentlemen in 19th Century London.    

There he develops a fraught friendship with Tim, and is introduced through him to his sister, Ishbel, who he develops quite a crush for, as well as Dan Rymer, Jamrach’s animal hunter.  When Tim is sent off with Dan to the South Pacific to bring back a dragon on the whale ship Lysander, Jaffy feels compelled to go with them on the adventure of a lifetime.    

There follows a wonderful series of scenes, including whale hunts at sea and dragon hunts on a remote, jungle-covered island.  There are ill portents aplenty, surfacing before they even find the dragon.  Trying to locate it, they go from island to island talking to the locals, who some on the ship fear might be cannibals…  [p140]:

Then we had the Lord’s Prayer – ‘… deliver us from evil…’ – hanging our heads and thinking about cannibals and swamps and monsters awaiting us tomorrow.

Then when the hunting party finds the almost mythical beasts, Jaffy sees [p156]:

A mess of them like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass, a red and pink rag trailing festoons, the grinning head of which, half severed and hanging back, revealed it to be one of their own. 

The subsequent hunt is breath-taking stuff, wonderfully vivid, a joy to read. 

With their dragon caught, they cage him on the ship and start out for home, a passage in which their lives are placed in peril, chased by storms, water spouts, and bad luck.  With the dragon secured in its pen in the fo’c’s’le, we have Jaffy ruminating on their new passenger thus, [p177]:

How was it that we became so afraid of the dragon?  Not just as anyone would be afraid of a wild animal with claws and teeth, but as if it was something more.  We took on bad luck with that creature

When disaster strikes, the question becomes: to what lengths will people go in order to survive against impossible odds?  Birch executes these scenes with such gut-wrenching accuracy it’s impossible to put the book down. 

The story is based on a combination of unrelated, actual events.  Jamrach was a real, Victorian-era importer of animals, and a boy did go up to a tiger which had escaped its cage and try to pat it only to be bitten and rescued by the owner.  The second event is the sinking of the whaleship Essex (which of course provided the inspiration for Melville’s Moby-Dick), and those who survived it.   

There are lovely nods to Moby-Dick.  Ishbel for Ishmael, for instance.  And Jaffy seeing a painting of a ship in Jamrach’s shop, just as Ishmael sees one in the pub-cum-boarding house he stays in the night before he climbs aboard his own ship.  Says Jaffy, [p38]:

The raised lantern revealed a painting of a curious vessel that reared up tall out of the sea at either end, a high-shouldered, many-turreted, floating castle of a ship, a thing upon which in a dream you might embark and sail away to the ends of the earth

There are, no doubt, many others. 

Vivid right from the start, Jamrach’s Menagerie is an excellent read, and Jaffy Brown and the crew he sails with are memorable characters.  I’ll not look at a raspberry puff in the same way again! 

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Text Publishing


ISBN: 9781921758959

346 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow


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Congratulations to Tea Obreht for winning the Orange Prize for Fiction in the UK, for her sparkling debut novel The Tiger’s Wife.  You can read my review here.  See also my summary of Tea’s discussion of the novel at last month’s Sydney Writers’ Festival here.

Judges praised Obreht’s story-telling ability, how she weaves the barbarity of the Balkans conflict into a story about stories and the love they can inspire in us.  You can see the announcement at the Orange Prize website here.  

You can read the Guardian’s article on the ‘surprise’ winner here.  (Room by Emma Donoghue was the hot favourite to win.)  See also the Guardian’s follow-up opinion piece on the victory for Obreht here in which The Tiger’s Wife is praised for its exuberance – a starkly different novel to Room

Well deserved. 

The D!

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Session #191: ‘The Big Reading’: Mitchell, Cunningham, Obreht, Miller, Abdolah: 

Just a short post on this afternoon’s ‘Big Reading’ – a SWF stalwart session.  This year was a real cavalcade of literary luminaries: in reading order:

1. Kei Miller: reading from The Same Earth – not his most recent work, but his debut novel.  A charming section describing a peculiar ‘countdown’ naming convention used by a family of 6 – which started with a boy who became known as ‘Five’ and then subsequent siblings right down to ‘Zero’, a simple boy who witnessed something horrific, something that changes him forever. 

2: David Mitchell: reading something from his next novel!   It’s part set in the future – a very dystopic future by the look of things! – and the main theme of the piece he read out was ageism.  Not surprisingly for Mitchell, there are more than one narrative strand – one set in this future world, another set in the ‘Land of Youth’ … very intriguing and wonderful to hear something fresh.  Kudos to him. 

3. Tea Obreht: reading part of the chapter from her acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife (see my review here) which introduces us to her wonderful – and much loved – character: ‘The Deathless Man’. 

4. Kader Abdolah: easily the most moving of tonight’s stories: Kader told an autobiographical story.  He is from Iran and fled as a refugee, in the process letting down his father because he left him behind.  He ended up in The Netherlands and then tried several quite humorous (and heartbreaking) times to get into the USA.  He learnt Dutch and now writes in Dutch (even translating the Koran into Dutch too).  To get up and speak as he did about his life in English was brilliant.  He then read us a few brief lines from his book The House of the Mosque.  He said the book was his way of travelling home to Iran, the place he can only go now in the imagination.  Wonderful. 

5. Michael Cunningham: he of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours fame, followed in David’s steps by reading us a chapter called The Snow Princess from his next novel, which focussed on the body of a woman who has been dead a week, her body frozen in death in the snow, how she was in a state of ‘in between’ – some of which he had written only last night!  (He said he gets a little weary of reading from what are for him ‘old’ novels.)  Another very exciting glimpse into the stories that will be hitting bookshelves, kindles, i-pads, etc, etc, in the (hopefully) not-to-distant future.  I dare say Cunningham fans will not be disappointed. 

Enjoyed it immensely and will be looking out for Miller and Abdolah’s work, which I’ve not yet read.

The D!

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Not a bad spot for a literary festival!

(#51): ‘The Tiger’s Wife’: Téa Obreht in Discussion with Stephen Romei:

Well just about everyone has heard about the sensational debut novel by Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (see my review here).  It is a sparkling and ambitious novel.  And in person she is sparkling too.  Obreht is in her words a ‘nomad’.  She was born in Belgrade, has lived in Cyprus and Egypt on her way to New York where she has lived since she was 12.  Given that around half of her life has been spent in the US Stephen asked her why it was she chose to write about the Balkans.  She responded by saying that distance helps.  She spoke about the tremendous influence her own grandfather has been on her life and how she came to write the novel 7-8 months after he had passed away unexpectedly.  Those events drew her to writing about her childhood, (and she made the interesting observation that many novelists’ first book is about their childhood). 

There is a great oral story-telling tradition in the Balkans countries, but also Cyprus and Egypt.  Those old tales, the folklore, the history are ever present things in people’s lives.  There is immense superstition – something which readers of the book will be familiar with! – in these cultures.  She told the story of how I think it was her grandmother who places a pair of scissors on the floor with the sharp edge pointing toward the door to ward off evil. 

When asked about how she has found the immensely positive reaction and whether it places extra pressure on her for her next book, she said that her only fear is that the 2nd novel might not come from the same emotional ‘well’ that The Tiger’s Wife has come from.  She said stories are like people: some you date, some you fall in love with.  She needs to feel that she is in love with the next story, that there is that emotional bond with it, that way she feels it will have the same resonance for readers too.  The sudden readership, she says, is wonderful and amazing and surreal. 

She’s always wanted to be a writer.  She lists many literary influences and loves: as a kid she was exposed and loved Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling (no surprise there – The Jungle Book is a very important ‘prop’ for the grandfather character in her book).  Then the Bronte sisters. Then Victor Hugo and Mikhael Bulgakov’s marvellous The Master and Margarita – which is one of her favourite books (and mine too – I like her taste!).  Gabriel Garcia Marquez also a big influence and then modernist masters like Hemingway, Chandler, et al.  She believes that the favourite experiences of reading these authors seeps into her own writing – and it is clear to me that Bulgakov comes through in The Tiger’s Wife very much. 

She talked a lot about one of the other characters in the book: the Deathless Man.  Apparently he is one of people’s favourite characters.  She intended him to be more sinister at first, but as she went she found him to be very sympathetic and easy to write.  Many of his sections survived editing without much rework.  She said the shock death of her grandfather fed into the character; he was in part a response to death and her trying to comes to terms with it in her own life.  She admitted that he was probably her favourite character. 

She was asked whether the story of the tiger’s wife is real folklore: she said it was her own (based a bit on a Beauty and The Beast theme) but it’s structured and told in the form of a real folklore story.  Having read the book I can attest that this is how it reads: as if it was one of those real stories that grew out of a village.  She also spoke about some of the research she did: and how a much earlier visit to that part of the world in chase of village stories on vampries gave her a real sense of not only how such stories were told, but how the villagers told them.  Also, she mentioned that the digging scene(s) in the book where people dig up fields in search of family members killed during the war so they can be given a proper burial is based on fact – many people have done exactly that. 

She is optimistic about the future of the book and the future of the former Yugoslavia.  And finally, she loves editing.  She had to lose sections of the story in editing which she was attached to, but could see the reasons for editing them out and has learnt a whole new side of writing and a new skill in the editing process. 

Another great session: Tea Obreht has a very bubbly and engaging sense of warmth and humour.  I highly recommend The Tiger’s Wife and look forward to her next book.  

More to come from Thursday…

The D!

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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

Orion Books


ISBN: 9780297859017

336 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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It’s that time of year again (yay!).  The Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) is but a few weeks away and the programme has just been released. 

There’s a great selection of local and international writers.  A quick perusal has got me lining up the likes of:

  • Our very own Kim Scott, talking about his recent, highly acclaimed novel, That Deadman Dance, up for Best Book Award in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
  • Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Booker Prize for The Finkler Question;
  • The very imaginative David Mitchell, talking about his most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, (see my review here);
  • Tea Obreht, member of The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40”, talking about her acclaimed novel, The Tiger’s Wife; 
  • Michael Cunningham of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours fame;   
  • Markus Zusak of The Book Thief fame, (see my review here); 
  • Interesting indigenous sessions, covering culture, art, fiction, poetry;
  • Poetry and Sydney-centric sessions, including the likes of Cate Kennedy and too many others to mention!;

The Festival also sees theawarding of several high-profile literary awards, including The Commonwealth Writers Prize (will Kim Scott win for That Deadman Dance?), the NSW Premier’s Awards, and the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writers’ Award.  I plan on attending the awarding of the Commonwealth Prize as well as a session the next day in which the judges will talk about their deliberations (and arguments?!) and how they arrived at the winner. 

There’s plenty of non-fiction-focusses things on too.  Politics, culture, environment, food.  Indeed, foodies should not be disappointed with Anthony Bourdain and critic AA Gill featuring.  There’ll also be many sessions for children, and other interests far and wide. 

Looks like a busy few days for me, although Sunday seems strangely clear.  A little imbalance in the programme perhaps?  Whatever the case, there’s plenty of interesting things to listen to and get involved in across the week and I can’t wait to blog about it. 

Anyone esle going along?  What are your festival highlights? 

The D!

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