Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself. But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.

The Tiger's Wife has been on my radar for a while now due to its notoriety and near-constant presence on the New York Times Best Seller list for months on end. When it eventually came up on the reading list of the book club I joined earlier this year I was glad to finally read it.
One of my favorite things about this book is how realism and fantasy are intertwined almost inseparably, how every plot line is tied inextricably to another and how much it reminded me of the story traditions I grew up with. Obreht is from the Balkans, I am from Ukraine, and while there are obviously differences there are also similarities that ring true, a result of our Slavic roots with a patina of the Ottoman invasion centuries ago, thicker for some, more transparent for others. I could also really see and relate to how she described it in an interview for RFERL:
...there's a concept of "a Balkan story." Even small stories are somehow big, huge. There's a moment in a Balkan story when the line between mythology, legend, and the story become irrelevant. Somehow, that mythology becomes a truth in itself and it becomes a very personal truth. The way in which you receive a story becomes your truth, and then it becomes the truth for the person you're telling the story to. That is very much our way...
I read the novel very quickly and only when it was finished did a thought form in my mind that the book is ultimately about death. This alone didn't faze me, after all I read The Book Thief earlier this year, and it was narrated by Death. What did surprise me though was finding out how young the author is. I could hardly imagine how a woman in her early 20s could have this kind of darkness in her enough to write a book like this. Don't get me wrong, The Tiger's Wife is not depressing by any means (there are a couple novels I read this year alone that were much more depressing), it is rather a matter-of-fact approach that regards death as part of life, sometimes difficult to reconcile oneself with but always present. The subject however is dark nonetheless.
I also very much enjoyed Obreht's writing style. It was proper without being stuffy and easy without being overly conversational. This is a literary novel that avoids boring the reader to tears and instead pulls one along with it through the many subplots until legends unwind into life and people with secrets, fears and hardships. The historical backdrop and very realistic details of family life, which I now know are autobiographical, give richness to these legends, provide a fertile environment for them, ground them and even help develop them better. I didn't know much about the history or culture of the Balkans before reading this book but now I am curious and will most likely look for more books and folklore of the region.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and if you are intimidated by its fame and international acclaim I urge you to disregard those reservations and give it a chance. It is well worth your time. Just don't expect everything to be presented to you neatly tied with a bow on top, you will be expected to make the leaps necessary to gather all the threads together from time to time, and you may even arrive at conclusions that won't match your fellow readers'. This exact thing happened in our book club and made for an interesting discussion.


  1. Ooh, interesting. I really wasn't too fussed about this one when I read it last year...I just found that I had a lot of loose ends to frustratingly try and tie up in my own head at the end. I wonder whether you found this easier to sink into due to your Slavic heritage?

  2. It's possible, I suppose. I think Slavic literature is much less straightforward than American literature, for example, so the readers grow up accustomed to making those leaps, keeping track of developments, reading between the lines, allowing for the metaphorical. It can be tiring after a while though, sometimes one wants things to just be what they seem and not some examination of the psyche, society or the human condition :)

  3. I'm very interested in reading more Slavic literature like you. I was obsessed with the myths and folklore of this novel and I loved how it all connected. Like you, I want more .... now! Haha. : )

  4. After reading the book here is one thing I know - I won't wait for a book club selection to read Obreht's next book.