Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Tigers Four: 'The Tiger's Wife' by Tea Obreht

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.

Natalia’s grandfather’s story about ‘the deathless man’, Gavran Gaile, was the most interesting thread in this book for me. Clearly drawing from archetype tales such as the Grimm Brothers’ ‘Godfather Death’, Gavran is able to tell whether a patient is to live or die by reading his coffee grounds, yet has been cursed by Death to be unable to die himself. During the civil war, her grandfather’s series of meetings with this man convey more about death and loss than the straightforward descriptions of the conflict earlier in the novel could have done. Not that they weren’t well-written – Natalia’s account of her teenage years, when normal life seemed suspended and students’ excuse to do anything they liked was ‘there’s a war on’, is incredibly evocative – but there is something in her grandfather’s stories that does more than this. Ironically, although this novel takes its title from a second story, that of her grandfather’s encounter with ‘the tiger’s wife’ in his childhood, I did not find that tale as emotionally resonant, nor as consonant with the themes of the rest of the novel, although I still enjoyed reading it.

Obreht makes the folk-tales fit in this modern-day narrative of war by blurring the edges of her invented country as well. We are given few place-names and no dates; Natalia lives in ‘the City’, and the recent, too-painful history of this nation seems to have been obscured by an older tradition of storytelling. Even Natalia’s own journey, to recover her grandfather’s possessions after his death, begins to read like something out of Grimm when she encounters a group of villagers digging up a body to remove a curse, and goes to seek out the guardian spirit, or mora, of the village. As I’ve said, this works – but in one way, this novel is lacking.

Ultimately, The Tiger’s Wife read to me like a series of collected stories, Natalia’s own Jungle Book of her grandfather’s life, rather than a single narrative about a war-torn country. To an extent, this may be deliberate. The Jungle Book, after all, was her grandfather’s favourite book, and rather than tying his story up in a neat package after finding his possessions, there is a sense that Natalia will be able to add to it in later life. As she beautifully says near the end of the novel, ‘Eventually, I will know enough to tell myself the story of my grandfather’s childhood.’ However, as I noted before, there is a weakness here. As a collection of modern-day folk-tales, this book is superb, but I did feel that Natalia, and the characters that surround her, such as her mother, her grandmother, and her best friend, Zora, were not strong enough to carry the novel’s central thread. Hence, what we have here is beads without a string. This may not even be an important criticism – I’d rather have these beads than many other novels’ completed necklaces – but it is something that stayed in my mind after I finished it. Tea Obreht is a fantastic writer, and I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next. And if it’s as well-structured in its entirety as each individual story in The Tiger’s Wife is, it will be something truly exceptional.

[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.]

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