I almost didn’t read this book because I thought it was going to be a story about a boy meeting a magical tiger, personifying the worst of magic realist animal stories. How wrong could I be? (Although I refuse to believe I made this up entirely by myself – some blame must rest with the writer of the original, very brief blurb.)
In this worthy winner of the Orange Prize, Tea Obreht blends doctor Natalia’s present-day experiences in a recently divided Balkan nation, still recovering from a horrific civil war, with a series of stories that come to her through her grandfather, who has recently died. That she manages to seamlessly integrate these original folk-tales into the main narrative is worthy of note in itself – so often, writers attempt to use this trick and break the flow of a book, making the side-stories far more compelling than the main thread or vice versa. While there were definitely sections of the book that I preferred to others – see below – it would be difficult to argue that any part of it was a distraction from the whole. This, however, is both a strength and a weakness.
[For my other posts on supposedly tiger-related novels, see Tigers One, on Lionel Shriver's The Female of the Species, Tigers Two, on Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch, and Tigers Three, on Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.]