the Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Phoenix, 2011, 336p (plus extras.)

 The Tiger's Wife cover

Having only recently read this year’s Orange Prize winner I thought I would try last year’s, and very good it was too.

the Tiger’s Wife is ostensibly about the life (and death) of the narrator Natalia Stefanovic’s grandfather but a recurring motif is Kipling’s The Jungle Book which he carries around with him and, as a young girl, enthuses her with. This strand of the novel is bound up with a character called the deathless man whose path crosses her grandfather’s at various times and whose encounters with him he relates to her on occasion. Obreht spaces these throughout the narrative, which is baggy and roams between Natalia’s present and her grandfather’s past.

The meandering style is artful and allows Obreht to collect together what is in effect a collection of short stories about the various characters whom Natalia and her grandfather encounter in the shape of their histories. This is a mainstream trait which usually has the effect of holding up any plot but Obreht’s writing is so fluid and natural-seeming that any such complaint is rendered otiose. The journey and the steps along it are engaging. The various wars which occurred during the lives of Natalia and her grandfather are never foregrounded but their effects and consequences are never far away.

The deathless man is, as his description suggests, unable to die but he has the ability to tell whether someone else soon will by examining coffee dregs from a cup he carries with him. This magical realist/fabulous element is echoed in the relationship between a deaf mute woman and a tiger who escaped from a zoo after a German bombing raid in 1941 and made his way to the remote mountain area where Natalia’s grandfather lived. As a result she becomes called the tiger’s wife. Despite the novel’s title, though, she plays a strangely small part in the overall narrative.

As far as the magical realism is concerned Obreht’s debt to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in particular is evident not only from the suggested reading at the back but also this quote, Months later, long after the forty days were over, when I had already begun to piece things together, I would still go to sleep hoping that he would find ways into my dreams and tell me something important, which is strongly reminiscent of the opening sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude but at least Obreht’s was in Chapter Four where its teasing qualities had to some extent already been earned. The forty days mentioned refers to the wandering of a soul after death, when the deceased’s belongings are left untouched for him or her to come back to should they wish.

In the very last part of the novel Obreht seeks to undercut the elements of fable in the relationship between the tiger’s wife and the tiger by providing a rational explanation for it. This comes across as ill-judged only in relation to the sure writing touch shown up to then.

Despite being a UK edition the book has Usian usages and spellings – candy, hemorrhage, gotten, epicenter, woollen etc – which seems somehow wrong for a book set in the former Yugoslavia. Obreht also employs that common misuse of epicentre as meaning a focal point. In what is a very worthwhile read indeed the addition of Reading Group Notes at the end including an In Brief, a For Discussion and Suggested Further Reading strikes me as crass, though. But I suspect none of that is of Obreht’s instigation.

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