Natalia and her friend, Zora, are both doctors and traveling to an orphanage by the sea in the former Yugoslavia to deliver medications, when Natalia learns her grandfather (also a physician) has died. Although his death is not a surprise (she knew he was ill), what shakes her is that he did not die in his home but far away in an isolated village and apparently he was on his way to see Natalia. Confused and grieving, Natalia continues on to her destination determined to understand her grandfather’s death through the stories of her childhood. She remembers her days at the Citadel with her grandfather, outside the tiger’s cage, listening as her grandfather reads from his worn copy of The Jungle Book. But there are other stories, some her grandfather has told her, and one that he has not.
The Tiger’s Wife is a sprawling, beautiful novel that unfolds gracefully as the narrative moves back and forth in time, revealing the life of a man through the stories he has shared with his granddaughter. Place is very important in this novel set in the Balkans. Although Tea Obreht uses fictional towns, the history of the region bleeds into the narrative. The presence of war looms throughout – including the Nazi invasion, and the Yugoslav Wars.
People must have seen him, but in the wake of bombardment he was anything but a tiger to them: a joke, an insanity, a religious hallucination. He drifted, enormous and silent, down the alleys of Old Town, past the smashed-in doors of coffeehouses and bakeries, past motorcars flung through shopwindows. He went down the tramway, up and over fallen trolleys in his path, beneath lines of electric cable that ran through the city and now hung broken and black as jungle creeper. – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 94 -
This novel is full of symbolism, the most obvious being the tiger himself – a graceful, powerful predator who brings beauty and fear to a small mountain village in the wake of the Nazi invasion. The tiger of the novel is the physical embodiment of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book – a fictional character who comes to life for Natalia’s grandfather one cold and magical winter. Tigers are gorgeous, they are stealthy, and most certainly they remind us that we are mortal and death may only be a paw swipe away. Obreht explores the idea of death and spirituality in The Tiger’s Wife. There is the story of the deathless man, a man who is able to cheat Death, who passes through her grandfather’s life like a shadow. And when Natalia arrives in the seaside village with Zora, she discovers a group of people digging in the vineyard, searching for a body whose spirit, they believe, is sickening their children.
But it would be wrong to assume that The Tiger’s Wife is only about our understanding and coming to terms with death. It is so much more. This is a novel about prejudice and fear, how stories shape who we later become, and our connection to family through the stories of our childhoods. This is a book about superstition and magic fused with reality. For me, the most satisfying part of the novel was the power of story. Obreht introduces the reader to the rich history of folklore and storytelling in the Balkan region – a region filled with diverse culture and religion, and one whose history is as complex as its people.
Obreht brings to life dozens of characters who weave through the stories within the story, adding depth to the narrative. Perhaps the most troubling and curious character is the village apothecary who looms larger than life for Natalia’s grandfather.
Standing under the counter, one sock lower than the other, my grandfather would look up at the shelves and shelves of jars, the swollen-bottomed bottles of remedies, and revel in their calm, controlled promise of wellness. The little golden scales, the powders, the herbs and spices, the welcoming smell of the apothecary’s shop, were all things that signified another plane of reality. And the apothecary – tooth puller, dream interpreter, measurer of medicine, keeper of the magnificent scarlet ibis – was the reliable magician, the only kind of magician my grandfather could ever admire. Which is why, in a way, this story starts and ends with him. – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 104 -
I loved this book – its sprawling, nearly dreamlike, narrative; its incredible description of place; and its fantastic characters. Tea Obreht excels as a storyteller. The best tellers of tales are those who are able to immerse their audience in the texture, taste, smell and feel of the story. Tea Obreht does this effortlessly. I was riveted to The Tiger’s Wife and carried along through its pages by the spellbinding voice of a very talented writer.
The Tiger’s Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction – and I believe it earns its place there. This is a memorable novel, a magical novel, one that had me dreaming of tigers and snow capped mountains and a man who cannot die. Readers will be thrilled and swept away by this book…one of the best of the year.
- Quality of Writing: