Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review - Bestsellers - The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

Civil war in the Balkans has left that region bereft and in need. It is in this fascinating region that Téa Obreht sets her elegantly written debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife.

While the protagonist of The Tiger’s Wife is Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor who has returned to her homeland to help the villagers, the central mystery of the book revolves around Natalia’s beloved grandfather as Natalia seeks to reconstruct his final days and his death in a village named Zdrevkov, far from his home.

Although Natalia’s search for the rhyme and reason behind her grandfather’s actions seems pretty straightforward, Obreht twines two folktales/legends around the central story, and in their telling writes a “story about stories.” And, even though Natalia is the protagonist of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s her wise, sweet grandfather who takes center stage, or at least he should.

Natalia’s grandfather lives in the City, a city that can only be Belgrade, but this is a book of fiction, and I really didn’t care if Obreht named the city or not. In fact, just calling it “the City” was more in keeping with the folktales and myths that make up a great part of this book. Natalia’s grandfather, who is also a physician, is also inordinately fond of animals, especially tigers. When Natalia was a child, he often took her to visit the zoo and carried a tattered and torn copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book with him everywhere. He is never without it. It is from her grandfather that Natalia, who seems to be a stand-in for the author, has come to love tigers, herself. When she learns of her beloved grandfather’s death, she’s at a pay phone in a gas station at the border of an Eastern European country, which she and her best friend, Zora, are about to enter in order to deliver vaccines to an orphanage sorely in need. Although her grandmother begs her to abandon her journey to the orphanage and come directly home, Natalia continues on, determined, not only to bring back her grandfather’s possessions, which are secured in a blue pouch Natalia must not, under any conditions, open, but also to discover why the grandfather she thought she knew so well went off to die alone.

During the war, Natalia’s grandfather tried his best to pretend that nothing had changed even though doctors over fifty years of age, like himself, were suspected of “loyalist feelings toward the unified state” and thus suspended from the practice of medicine. Natalia’s grandfather defied the law, and he continued to see patients in secret. However, what disrupted his life more than his inability to practice medicine was the closing of the city zoo. After the government closes the zoo, Natalia’s grandfather can no longer indulge in his favorite weekly routing of visiting the tigers.

One of the folktales that twines around the main storyline is one Natalia’s grandfather told her and revolves around the “deathless man,” Gavran Gailé, the nephew of Death, who defied and cheated Death by sparing a lover's life. Condemned forever, Gailé must spend eternity scouring the earth and gathering in souls. For that reason, he travels with wars and epidemics, and has been cursed with agelessness, something many people think they would enjoy. Gailé, however, is quick to set the record straight. “Dying is not punishment,” he tells the grandfather. “The dead are loved. They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.”

The other folktale is really a fable and takes place during World War II in the very village where Natalia’s grandfather grew up. After the Germans bombed the City in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo and took refuge in the mountains above the grandfather’s village. Almost everyone feared the tiger greatly, as well they should. All, that is, but the deaf-mute wife of the abusive local butcher, who has mysteriously disappeared. The townspeople believed his wife might have killed him, and they also believed this same wife fed and cared for the tiger. Because of this, they began calling her “the tiger’s wife.” The other person who loved and revered the tiger was a small boy, a small boy who would grow up to be Natalia’s grandfather.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” Naralia says, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life — of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University.”

I believed Natalia, but understanding her grandfather proved to be no easy task for this reader as the two folktales really tell us very little about the boy/man who was Natalia’s grandfather. Even after reading the two folktales, I still didn’t quite understand why Natalia’s grandfather loved tigers so, or why he always carried a copy of The Jungle Book in his pocket. But, I really wanted to understand. Natalia may be our protagonist in this book, but her grandfather is the book’s very heart and soul.

If the book seems to be obsessed with death and with how people come to terms with death, it is. It is also about the responsibilities the living owe the dead, and what has the power to live on, if not individually, then in the collective imagination.

As Natalia and Zora continue with their medical mission to the orphanage, they come into contact with a family who is searching for the body of a hastily buried relative, one buried in a vineyard during the war, and one the family has now come to retrieve. The man’s displacement is literally making the children of the family sick. The family wants to rebury the man, so that they, and he, have peace. Obreht’s words will cause some readers to shiver as Natalia and the others locate the dead man’s bones and begin to wash them. Obreht writes:

...the cracked dome of the skull, wiping down the empty sockets and the crooked lines between the teeth. Then they were breaking the thighbones, sawing through them with a cleaver so that the body could not walk in death to bring sickness to the living....

It is Natalia, however, the non-believer, who buries the man’s heart at a crossroads, thus releasing at last the soul of the dead man and bringing peace to both him and his family.

Despite all the myth and folktale, to Obreht’s credit, she never loses sight of the more mundane world in which her characters live their everyday lives:

Green shutters, a greenish flower...a stone canal ran up past the campground. Boxes in the windows, here and there a garage with a tarped car and maybe some chickens huddled on the hood. There were wheelbarrows full patching bricks or cement or manure…of laundry lines hung from house to house, heavy with sheets and headless shirts, pegged rows of socks. A soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly, tied to a tree in someone's front yard.

I liked the rather gloomy premise of this novel, I loved Obreht’s gorgeous writing, and even though I’m not a fan of myths, folktales, or fairy tales, I did like the three story strands (Natalia, the “tiger’s wife” and the “deathless man”) that make up this book. I loved the sense of place the author managed to evoke. I really felt like I was in the Balkans while reading this beautiful book. Still, I felt the book had some problems.

I suppose what bothered me most about The Tiger’s Wife was the fact the Natalia’s grandfather remained little more than a cipher in the book, yet, for me at least, he was the character around whom everything else revolved. Both Natalia and her grandfather seemed, in the end, to be little more than vehicles through which to tell the story of the “tiger’s wife” and the story of the “deathless man.” Those two folk stories are wonderful stories, pulsing with dark life, but it’s the grandfather who anchors the book; it’s the grandfather I wanted to know more about; it’s the grandfather we learn so little about.

Yes, I realize that we turn to stories and folktales and fables in times of crises “to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening,” but I wanted to understand what was happening to Natalia and most especially, to Natalia’s grandfather. For me, Obreht didn’t use the two folktales to “stitch together” the life of the fascinating character that was Natalia’s grandfather. Maybe Obreht is telling us that she believes that even those we love the most remain unknowable. I’m not sure. I just felt it was wrong to set us up for something and then leave us hanging, for we never learn why Natalia’s grandfather has such love and passion for tigers just as we never learn why he clings to his old, battered copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Not getting to know the grandfather left me feeling I’d read a gorgeously written book, but one whose emotional center was missing.

In The Tiger’s Wife, sadly, the parts are greater than the whole. The three story strands never come together to form one beautiful, and emotionally moving, story. In the end, they remain three disparate story strands. They leave the reader with the sense of having read something beautiful, but also something rather pointless.

The book also loses momentum, even before we reach mid-point. I didn’t feel this was because the author was juggling three separate story strands – she seems to juggle separate story strands without trouble – but because the two folktales never seem to mesh well enough with the story of Natalia and her grandfather.

It’s Natalia’s grandfather, himself, who tells us, after he and his granddaughter have just witnessed an elephant wandering the streets of the City, that moments are meant to be cherished, that:

You have to think carefully about where you tell it and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?

Maybe, I wondered, Obreht felt that her readers were not worthy of hearing Natalia’s grandfather’s story in full. Maybe she felt we were only worthy of knowing Natalia’s grandfather obliquely, though the stories of the “tiger’s wife” and the “deathless man.” If that’s the case, then I feel bad, not for me, but for Natalia’s grandfather, for he seemed to be a man whose spirit was generous to a fault, a man who would want his story to be told and to live on.

And that is the big failing of this book. Obreht is, in many ways, a marvelous writer, even a luminous one. But in the end, people are interested in people. Though the folktales were interesting, without the character of the grandfather, they ring hollow. While the grandfather remained in the background, and the folktales took center stage, it should have been the other way around. Yes, The Tiger’s Wife is filled with beautiful writing, and it is “art,” but this reader wanted a little less art and a lot more humanity.


Recommended: The book gives us a beautiful sense of place, and at times, the prose is so good it’s luminous. The book is definitely “arty,” but I wanted a little less art and a lot more humanity. The three stars are for the beautiful evocation of place and atmosphere, and for the lovely writing. Sadly, the story told, as is, is only worth one star to me. You may be different, but I needed more of the grandfather. I do feel Obreht has a very bright future, and I’m looking forward to more from her. It’s rare to find such sophisticated writing in one still so young.

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