Sometimes, a book can enthrall you even as it fails to meet your expectations. The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht is that kind of book. I have tremendous respect for this gifted young writer, only 26 years old, and I believe she will grow into a distinguished and remembered author. For me, however, The Tiger’s Wife felt less like a novel, and more like a fabulous collection of exquisite short stories that are worth reading in and of themselves, though they do not coalesce into a satisfying and unified work.
The Tiger’s Wife is set during the 1990’s in the Balkans, an ancient region of complex history and perpetual conflict. We meet Natalia, a young doctor, who learns of her grandfather’s death far from home, while she is across a recently re-drawn border on a mercy mission to inoculate war orphans. As she grieves, she attempts to learn about the circumstances of his death and to bring his personal belongings back to her grandmother. Natalia is our narrator and she reflects upon her grandfather’s life by remembering the tales he has shared with her over her lifetime. Yet, Natalia is not our protagonist, and neither is her grandfather. Their relationship should be the evocative center of this book, around which the rest of the novel orbits. Instead, their bond felt more like a literary device orchestrated for the sole purpose of combining a loosely related assortment of short stories into a single volume. Despite this structural flaw, the stories are beautifully crafted and I found myself lost within them as I read.
Two main stories stand as pillars of the book. The first is about the journey of a zoo tiger who escapes his compound during a German bombardment in World War II. The second is of a man who cannot die because he is being punished by his uncle, Death, for having transgressed him. To say much more would spoil the richness that lies within each story. They are wonderful allegories that explore truths of the human condition. Ms. Obreht’s talent for storytelling shines brightly in these short works.
Minor stories are ensconced within the larger tales; and one of them continues to affect me deeply. Luka is the bloody-apron-clad butcher who lives in the grandfather’s childhood village and is married to a young deaf-mute woman. We know immediately upon his introduction that he is evil incarnate. Yet Ms. Obreht poignantly shows “Luka was a batterer, and here is why.” Luka’s personal history is heart wrenching and it induced acute sorrow within me; I felt and continue to feel empathy for a monster. This is an agonizing tale of a soul that was once filled with purity and goodness, but which is cast down into abject darkness by cruelty and catastrophe–as if God himself not only turned His back on Luka, but was also complicit in his downfall. As more days pass between the book and me and as the main characters and their stories begin to fade, Luka lingers in my thoughts. Moreover, I wish he were not there.
Novels can heighten our awareness about the world we inhabit. As I read The Tiger’s Wife, vague recollections of newspaper headlines came to me; headlines I glossed over as a young adult indifferent to the world outside my own. These were the headlines to stories buried in mid-sections of U.S. papers since the horrors they depicted didn’t impact America’s “national interests.” I was familiar with the phrase, “the war in Bosnia,” but my knowledge stopped there. In the book, Ms. Obreht employs a technique by which she anonymizes the locations, historical events, and political entities within each story. Many readers, especially those born in the Balkans have harshly criticized her for this, claiming she was not willing to do the proper research in order to associate the complex reality of the former Yugoslavia’s history and current events with the plots and characters of the book. Her technique had a positive result for me; it illustrated that I had a tremendous gap in my knowledge of this part of the world and I needed to do something about it.
I avoided the temptation of the Google search box, and instead walked up to my beloved Excelsior Branch library. I availed myself of the rich knowledge that can only be found in reference stacks that are filled with accurate, validated historical resources like the authoritative Oxford Companion to the Politics of the World. I had long forgotten about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that triggered World War I, and of the vast reign of the Ottoman Empire and its impact on the entire ancient world. And though I recalled that something terrible had happened in Srebrenica in the 90’s, it was only through my quiet study that I learned that more than 8,000 men and boys were systematically killed in this region over a matter of days, while NATO did nothing–the worst act of genocide in Europe since World War II. I am especially grateful for my read of The Tiger’s Wife because it prompted me to develop a greater understanding of this region’s painful past and a deeper sensitivity to its ongoing instabilities.
The Tiger’s Wife published in March and it is quickly becoming a bestseller. This June, it was awarded the United Kingdom’s coveted Orange Prize for women’s fiction and shortly thereafter made its first appearance on The Bookseller’s bestseller list at #27 (this is the UK’s equivalent of The New York Times bestseller list). The New Yorker has declared Ms. Obreht one of the best American fiction writers under forty. Readers all over the world are being introduced to Téa Obreht and I am thrilled that I discovered her. I look forward to watching her writing career grow in the years to come because although her debut novel fell short of some of my expectations, the potential that resides within this young writer is clearly on display within The Tiger’s Wife .