By the time she is thirteen, Natalia has taken so many trips with her grandfather to visit the caged tigers that she feels like a prisoner of ritual. Then a war hundreds of miles distant breaks the ritual: the zoo closes, curfews are implemented, students are disappearing, and spending time with her grandfather seems less important than committing small acts of defiance: staying out late, kissing a boyfriend behind a broken vending machine, and listening to black market recordings of Paul Simon and Johnny Cash. When her grandfather is suspended from his medical practice because he is suspected of harboring "loyalist feelings toward the unified state," Natalia adopts new rituals that keep her at his side when he isn't paying clandestine visits to his old patients. In return, he takes her to see an astonishing sight that offers the hope for an eventual restoration of the rituals that made up their pre-war lives. Natalia's grandfather tells her that this is their moment: not a moment of war to be shared by everyone else, but a moment that is uniquely theirs.
The Tiger's Wife is filled with wondrous moments, small scenes that assemble into a novel of power and wisdom and beauty. As an adult doctor delivering medicine across new and uncertain borders, Natalia grieves for her deceased grandfather while recalling the lessons he taught and the stories he told -- stories that more often than not center on death: how it is faced, feared, and embraced. Death is everywhere in this novel: death caused by war, by disease, by animal and man and child. And there is death's counterpoint, a character who cannot die (or so the grandfather's story goes). Death is virtually a character in the novel, as is the devil -- although the devil's identity is somewhat obscure, appearing as someone's uncle in one of the grandfather's stories, suspected of wearing the guise of a tiger by others. The tiger, of course, is a force of death -- feared by many, but not by the tiger's wife, who shows us that fear is unnecessary. Ultimately, coming to terms with death is, I think, the novel's subject matter.
Téa Obreht writes with clarity and compassion. She tells the interwoven stories that comprise The Tiger's Wife without judgment or sentiment. Her characters are authentic; with only one or two exceptions, she doesn't go out of her way to make them likable or sympathetic. Nor does she ask readers to hate characters who commit evil acts, although she wants us to understand them. She does not insist that we either condemn or condone the actions of a wife-abusing butcher. Instead, she gives us a chance to comprehend human complexity, to know that there is more to the characters than their offensive or violent actions. The village gossips, knowing nothing of the truth, judge both the abuser and the abused. Obreht shows us how foolish it is to judge others without knowing them ... and how unlikely it is that we will know enough to judge.
Obreht writes with the maturity and confidence of an accomplished novelist. Her style is graceful. It is difficult to believe that this is her first novel. If she continues to produce work as sound as The Tiger's Wife, readers should wish her a long career.
on August 1, 2011
From the moment I first read a review of this book, I really wanted to like it. I thought the premise sounded interesting, and the author was praised for her highly superior writing skills.
Well, I will agree that Tea Obreht can write a beautiful sentence; a beautiful paragraph ... her writing flows very well. I tend to read with a very smooth, lyrical inner voice. In many novels, this trips me up at times because the author very suddenly changes sentence structure and interrupts the flow of the writing and the words themselves. This novel was a refreshing change in that regard, and at first I quite enjoyed it simply for this quality.
However, there is another flow a book must have, and that is a flow of story. Now, I'm not saying an author can't jump around in the telling, between points of view or side stories or time lines. I have certainly enjoyed novels that do this (an author that comes to mind is Kingsolver, who tends to change perspectives every chapter). But overall, there has to be a purpose to the jumping around. In this novel, I kept waiting for some indication of this, but I never got one, even at the end. The story didn't feel finished to me; it almost didn't feel like a story at all.
Another way in which I judge a novel is whether or not I *really* want to read it. It's not the sole indication of great writing, but for me to consider a book "good" I have to want to keep reading. Unfortunately, it was the exact opposite for this novel. I was constantly putting it down after, say, ten pages, and having to force myself to pick it back up. It's taken me a few weeks to read (with other things in between); this is an eternity for me. While there are a few compelling themes -- ones you must really search for -- their relevence to the novel was not frequent enough.
((Beware of spoilers at this point ...))
Which brings me to my next point. As other people have said, this book has WAY too much description of scenery. Now, I know it's literary fiction, and by definition there's more description and less action. But this book was bordering on ridiculous. I didn't need a three page description of Natalia walking to the crossroads, nor another five pages of her simply following the "mora" up the side of a hill and through the woods. As I just wanted to be done with the book, that part was especially excruciating for me. Description can be a wonderful thing when it advances the story. However, many of the descriptions in this novel not only lent nothing to the plot, but actually went on so long that they managed to isolate my attention from the point the author was trying to make, so that when I returned to the telling of the story, I felt disoriented by the characters.
I honestly think that this book could have been really excellent. The stories were interesting, and I enjoyed many of the characters, though I do agree with others that there was an emotional disconnect. Of course, this was probably done intentionally, to showcase the very impersonal nature of death, and so I won't argue with that. Even discounting that, though, I couldn't really feel the point of the story.
I'm having a little bit of trouble putting my finger on exactly what bugged me about this book, but here it is: one of the major themes, I think Natalia even says it in narrative at one point, is how these experiences from her grandfather's past, the stories he told her about the deathless man and the tiger's wife, colored his entire life experience. Yet I didn't feel like there was any connection between the boy who befriended the tiger's wife, the man who dealt with the deathless man, and the husband/father/granfather described in his interactions with Natalia. At the very least, no emotional connection, which is practically the only type that matters in a novel like this. After all, if the emotional disconnect from the characters was done on purpose because of the themes of death, wouldn't this contradict the point of the story as defined by Natalia, which, as I said above, is the way the two stories contributed to her grandfather's life and death?
All in all, I was just disappointed. Maybe it deserves more than two stars. Maybe I am being too hard on it because I had such high expectations and because I saw such promise that was never realized. But at the same time, I think that one of the hallmarks of great fiction is what it makes you feel, and I didn't feel anything at all while reading this novel.
on April 26, 2011
I certainly have read worse books in my life, but few have been as disappointing. This is not entirely the author's fault, since she and her book have been so publicized and honored prior to arrival that expectations were extraordinarily high. The novel is, however, "OK," a far cry from the praise pre-pub comments trumpeted. What is refreshing about the book is that we at least have an author who knows how to craft a careful sentence and cares as much about how she tells a story as the story itself. The fantastical elements, noted in other reviews, also are signs of a fertile imagination. Unfortunately, neither of these strengths quite overcomes the weaknesses, of which I would cite two primarily: 1) the primary narrative asks us to be emotionally moved by the death of the narrator's grandfather, but we really do not know any of the main present-day characters in enough depth to share their loss. In fact, despite the good will of the narrator (she's a doctor trying to help sick orphans!), she comes off as whiny and self-involved; 2) on the other hand, the parts of the narrative that show real strength, in which the novel turns toward folklore in stories about the titular tiger's wife or the deathless man, end up overwhelming so much with details that we begin to wish the stories to come to an end. The imagination, in other words, seems to have run amok. A great steak doesn't taste better by adding more of it to the plate. (If you've read a lot of Rushdie over the years, you might also tire more quickly of these passages, as they are reminiscent of much of his work.) It's nice to see an author with a big imagination and fine skill with words get published; it's just unfortunate that that imagination and skill didn't result in a novel that lived up to its potential, or its hype.
The Tiger's Wife is an audaciously original book, all the more so when one reflects that the author is only in her mid-twenties. It takes place in a Balkan location - likely Belgrade and the surrounding countryside - and focuses on a young woman - Natalia's - search for the truth about the last days of her grandfather.
The narrative is woven around Natalia's remembrances of two fable-like stories narrated to her by her grandfather, which weave tighter and tighter and ultimately reveal their truths. There is a magical realism quality to these stories, which encompass the haunting tale of a rogue tiger, an abused deaf-mute woman who is feared by the villagers and rumored to be the tiger's wife, Darisa the bear and tiger hunter, and a "deathless man" who may be the nephew of Death itself, whose appearances often portend catastrophe.
Whew! There are hints of Garcia Marquez, Rushdie, perhaps Arabian Nights as the narrator seeks to get to the truth by working through the deconstruction of the mythology. To add yet another layer, the grandfather is very attached to his edition of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which he carries everywhere. That allegorical book, of course, is a story of a boy raised by wolves when a tiger attacks an encampment, killing his father. Years later he finds himself back in "civilization", which he finds far less civilized than his jungle haunts.
Similarly, at the heart of The Tiger's Wife, a pampered tiger becomes "free" and reverts back to his original nature, placing the only person with the compassion to feed him at risk. Ms. Obreht writes, "If things had turned out differently, if that winter's disaster had fallen in some alternate order...the rumors that spread about the tiger's wife might have been different...But because that winter was the longest anyone could remember, and filled with a thousand small discomforts, a thousand senseless quarrels, a thousand personal shames, the tiger's wife shouldered the blame for the villagers' misfortunes." THIS Tiger burns bright with allegory as well.
So...does it all work? Yes. And no. Ms. Tea Obreht shines when she weaves her fables; the sections on the tiger and the deathless man mesmerized me, as she paints ominous tales about the specters and superstitions that inhabit the woods and hills. I found myself to be curiously disengaged when the narrative shifted to the present. Natalia seems to be a means of unveiling the truths rather than a fully fleshed character and as a result, realism and the magic of the narration rather clashed. In the end, I admired Tiger's Wife greatly, but cannot say I loved it. Still, I recognize the talent behind this innovative work.
on January 26, 2012
liked: the dense, luxurious writing
didn't like: that the story threads never came together to form a satisfying whole
liked: the "promise" that this was going to be a story about Natalia, her grandfather and their relationship
didn't like: that that was actually the frame for the village stories and folklore
liked: hearing about Natalia's growing up and becoming a doctor
didn't like: lengthy meandering into back-stories of (mostly) unlikeable village characters
liked: the mysterious "deathless" man
didn't like: that no matter how many times the "deathless" man explained himself, I never really "got it".
liked: that Natalia and Zora were trying to help the diggers and their children
didn't like: the diggers
liked: the portrayal of the tiger's wife
didn't like: the abrupt ending to her story
liked: the slower pace of the novel
didn't like: when the excessive details began weighing the narrative down instead of propelling it forward
liked: the premise of "The Jungle Book" as a sacred object
didn't like: that that wasn't more developed and ultimately, turned out to be less magical than I anticipated
liked: the novel I thought I was going to read (based on the way it began)
didn't like: the novel I actually read
No quarrel with craft here, but because of the above, this was a three-star
experience for me
on April 27, 2011
This book has been so thoroughly reviewed and largely raved about in establishment literary circles that there is little need to dissect it further. Many Amazon reviewers love it. It is well done and there is much to praise, but it left me indifferent. The writer's merits don't create a reader experience - a mood, engagement and identification with the people and events. The writing seems self-conscious and leaves the reader to connect with the author not the reverse.
I won't knock the novel but merely summarize my own reaction. There was nothing to object to nor any overt weaknesses from a technical and lit crit point of view. I just didn't care about what was being told. I suspect that that will be true for many other readers. First, the prose is aloof and detached. It lacks variation in pace. The sentences seem too studied, word perfect and measured but without color and that shiver of image and phrasing that makes the page come alive. The unvarying march of slightly overlong, plain sentences and careful phrasing quickly drags and then becomes laborious and even turgid.
I found the structure a big weakness. The central characters of narrator and grandfather plus the family surrounding them are largely ciphers. The fables and their magical trappings do not come together to build up any strong sense of the sparking between brutal reality and exotic fantasy. It just didn't jell as a unity. I was not convinced by or caught up in the story and indeed couldn't really say just what the novel adds up to; it has no momentum and is more a cycling around.
I expected and wanted to like this book. I ended up neither liking nor disliking it, just indifferent. Not recommended.
on March 19, 2011
I was born in Belgrade a few years before the author and (unlike her) lived there until college graduation, throughout the wars and crises of the 1990s. I was hoping that this book could tell some authentic stories about my generation and my homeland, but after reading it I am disappointed on various levels, which I will try to explain in this review.
MYTHS and RITUALS: I start here because this book is mostly advertised as a mythical Balkan novel. Some basic concepts the author does get right, for example the forty days of the soul do begin on the morning after death. I think that nearly all Serbians know this and observe 40 days of the soul, most commonly by hiring a priest to perform a (short, simple, singing-based) service at the cemetery on the 40th day after death. In the book, Grandma's obsession with other details, such as not doing laundry etc, seems a little overblown, especially since it later gets revealed that this character is actually Muslim, so the deaths of her parents and cousins would not have involved such rituals in her hometown, as the narrator mentions. But considering other issues in the novel, this is a relatively minor flaw.
The gory rituals that the diggers perform in the book bother me a lot more. This is supposed to be a realistic contemporary part of the story, and readers are supposed to believe that peasants would search for bones of a distant cousin in someone's vineyard and that they would wash the bones: "the cracked dome of the skull, wiping down the empty sockets and the crooked lines between the teeth." "Then they were breaking the thighbones, sawing through them with a cleaver so that the body could not walk in death to bring sickness to the living..." This is supposed to be happening in broad daylight, with about a dozen people actively participating, and many more passers-by watching, out of curiosity. Please! The Balkans had their share of trouble, but average people haven't grown accustomed to this level of goriness, and I've never heard of anything like "wash the bones, bring the body, leave the hearth behind", and can't imagine any of my cousins or friends doing anything but running away in horror at this kind of proposition (or a much milder one, to be honest).
FOLKLORE: The author tries to use some elements of the Balkan folklore, which is a good idea in principle, because the region is rich with colorful traditions. I just wish she did more research and tried to stay true to the real folklore, instead of mixing it with other random elements. For example, there is a story of gusle (the traditional instrument) and a character who aspires and ultimately fails to become an expert guslar. A traditional guslar sings epic songs about courage, freedom and loyalty, which the character sadly never tells in the book and the author never seriously addresses. Instead, she introduces two entirely foreign elements: the tiger and the deathless man. One would be acceptable (and I like the tiger better, for his role in the story I discuss bellow), but two is too much. The deathless man feels alien and generic, like a lost cousin of Joe Black, sent to this novel by some hurried Hollywood producer, in an effort to tie together the loose plot treads. Disappointing.
CHARACTERS and PLOT: The book is narrated by a young doctor Natalia, who we get to know through her fearless search for clues surrounding her grandfather's death, and some earlier memories that are mostly defined by her aspiration for proper medical education in her troubled hometown. I haven't connected with this character at all, even thought I am supposed to be of her age and background, and actually have friends who are young doctors in Belgrade. But there is no emotion that rings true and very few stories seem plausible. For example, she thinks it's necessary that the University provides one corpse a week per student for educational purposes on the second year of pre-med, and responds to the lack of such resources by taking a trip to a Romanian human skull counterfeiter. Come on!
Thankfully, Natalia is not the main character and her grandfather is a little more interesting in my mind, mostly because of the compassionate episode with the tiger and his wife. Their unusual relationship is actually the bright point of this novel. But the "mystery" surrounding his death turns into another disappointment and the "real" reason for his trip to Zdrevkov ultimately doesn't make much sense.
As for the plot, at one point I was hopeful that everything might come together nicely, and was almost going to swallow the gruesome diggers, for I imagined they might be necessary to reveal the central question about grandfather's death. But it turns out that all the narrator really needs (to answer this question) is between her old memories and the bag she retrieves pretty early on her journey, so for the entire second half of the book her present actions contribute only to illuminating the grim side-story of the village she is staying in. Argh.
SETTING: The narrator lives in The City, with two rivers one of which is The Danube, the Zoo at the old citadel, and people who eat burek and drink rakija. So why not just call it Belgrade? (If she really wanted to make it vaguer, she could have omitted at least one river and left the other one unnamed.) With the details provided, I have to call it Belgrade; nothing else makes sense.
So the narrator is in Belgrade at the beginning of the first recent major war (that would be 1992) and the Administration has enforced the curfew, and the teenagers are protesting in their cars, and the hardest thing to find is foreign music. In reality, as far as I know, there was no memorable curfew, and no teenagers drove cars (the legal driving age was 18 and the gas was mighty expensive, so there was hardly any traffic in the city), and media piracy blossomed, so music was the cheapest thing to find. Should I go on?
CONCLUSION: Tea Obreht is a talented writer with some knowledge of the Balkans. This could have been an interesting book, had the author done more research and tried to stay true to more authentic and less sensational elements. As written, the book is a mix of truths and misconceptions, which in my opinion succeeds in making an average reader very confused and a knowledgeable reader quite irritated in the end. And the big message is? That the Balkans are sad and tragic, and that desperate people resort to personal and collective myths in order to deal with harsh realities. 350 pages to learn this? The good news is that the Balkans are less grim and more dimensional than this novel suggests and I hope that one day someone manages to capture that in some better book.
on November 21, 2011
Tea Obreht. Since June of 2009, when the New Yorker published her short story "The Tiger's Wife" and a year later "Blue Water Djinn," then selected her as the youngest of its stars of the future (20 under age 40), Tea's first novel has been anticipated as if she were the next Willa Cather or Katherine Ann Porter. With the coming of the finalists for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, we awaited to see if she would be nominated and, inevitably, she was. Given the accolades over the last eighteen months, we have to read her novel "The Tiger's Wife."
Tea is a very talented young lady (25 at publication date), a very accomplished stylist, but it's far too early for a major award and I hope that the burden of such heavy praise does not overwhelm her future efforts. She is one of the few workshop graduates to make a living by writing so soon after graduation (essays and travelogues as well as short stories), but will she produce the rich volume of a John Updike or the limited richness of a Marilynne Robinson?
Tea loves to immerse her stories in allegories and metaphors to such an extent that she appears to have spent more time in the poetry than the fiction workshops and at times the metaphors overwhelm the narrative. Her stories remind me of John Irving's early work, such as "Setting Free the Bears," heavy in artsy metaphors, a heaviness that distracted from the story but which he tamed in later novels, only to never quite achieve the lifetime recognition everyone expected. Tea's next novel will be an important step and the next twenty years, which I won't see, could be a wonderful journey for those of us who enjoy literature.
Tea draws us into "The Tiger's Wife," into stories within stories, with exquisite descriptions and sentences that rival the best of stylists, but, as many reviewers have said, the tales stretch out too much, and I began to fidget with yet another chapter of the Deathless Man or Luca's early love affair with an ancient instrument. She draws us into stories of daily lives with wars hovering in the background, World War One, Two and later, the Bosnian Slaughter. I kept turning pages wondering when the characters would be engulfed in the fighting, only to realize they were in an urban cocoon, possibly Belgrade, insulated from the fighting somewhere else. Then I realized she was letting the bitter conflicts hang over the story, unspoken of in everyday pursuits, something that tended to be more of a problem of the peasants and their superstitions and bigotry told through allegorical tales, as if the conflicts didn't affect the professional class.
The narrator, the granddaughter Natalie, describes the Bosnian Slaughter in a limited fashion here and there, along with a story of the conflict told to her by her grandfather but only as a background to a meeting with the Deathless Man; the grandfather seems to ignore the conflict, as if it is no different than World War Two and the invasion of the Germans. (I would suggest the reader quickly read a summary of the Bosnian conflict; it was far more complex than a simple clash of Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Communist cultures, compounded by language and heritage differences: the genocidal murders and mass rapes of Muslim women to produce a generation of orphans.) Tea's technique seems to be to develop a subtle irony in the same manner as a Marilynne Robinson. Natalia's grandfather, a respected physician and teacher at the medical college, is the wonderful doting grandfather that we all cherish. Only after finishing and pondering the novel, did I realize that the professional, respected grandfather seemed to ignore the war ("pretending that nothing had changed ... my grandfather didn't read about it and didn't talk about it"), ignore the government, ignore the culture around him as he immersed himself in his profession, feeling a comfortable self-satisfaction in healing the sick, treating the shopkeepers and serving the poor in the hospital. Only after we think about the novel later do we realize that the grandfather had slipped comfortably into his daily life with his profession, his family and especially his granddaughter, the daily rituals of life. He stoically accepted the uncontrollable events in life, and he concealed his mortal disease from his wife, not wanting to burden her with his impending death, just as he did not want the ongoing slaughter to burden him. As we later learn, he was raised an Orthodox, lapsed into disbelief, then married a Muslim girl ("I would still have married her if her family had asked me to be married by a hodza," he confessed to the Deathless Man) in Sarobar. Sarobar is one of those mystical words like "Malabar" used by D. H. Lawrence in "The Rocking-horse Winner," or "Araby" by Joyce, a lyrical word that conjures death. He knew of the impending slaughter of the Muslims in Sarobar as did the Deathless Man, yet her grandfather laments that the hotel is out of lobster. When the Deathless Man asks him why he came, the grandfather replies, "I want to see it again before it dies" with no outrage, no protestation, no guilt, simply a powerless acceptance of the destruction of his wife's birthplace, and, with our minds filling in the elliptical plot, a town that had to be the home of her cousins and their children and grandchildren.
But did he ultimately commit the mortal sin of omission? Did he along with his privileged compatriots tacitly sanction the atrocities of his government by burying himself in the comforts of daily living, the periodic visits to the zoo, viewing the exotic animals as he did the ignorant, superstitious peasants of widely differing cultures? In his impending death, seeing his granddaughter cross the border to treat orphans of the war, did he realize his sin of omission by desperately reaching out to try to save two Muslim boys, did he seek his personal atonement in his faithless world?
The Deathless Man, born during the expulsion of the Ottomans in 1905 when the killing began in the Balkans and never ended, and the tiger are metaphors of the endless death in the Balkans and the Muslim minority, segregated and caged, eventually lashing out in an animalistic survival when the institutions of government collapse. The reader can grapple with and interpret them as they may. But it is the very subtle moral hypocrisy that elevates this novel, a subtlety that reminded me of Marilynne Robinson. Yes, the metaphors and symbolism are heavy, overly done, and some wished that the characters of the mother and grandmother were more developed, but they were taken for granted by the grandfather and that was part of the story as he immersed himself in his profession.
Tea will be a talent to watch grow as long as she keeps that incredible imagination. Marilynne only gave us three novels. I only hope that the ghost of the prodigious Updike guides this young talent.
on July 1, 2011
I bought this book based on a review that raved about the writing and depth of the work. The reviewer was right, the author can describe scenery and describe scenery and describe scenery all day long. What she cannot do is tell a story. I read and read, but here's a Spoiler Alert: NOTHING HAPPENS. Ever. The characters don't become anything, do anything interesting, or draw one into the drama of their existence. They just are there, and are there at the end, and in the middle. Doing nothing interesting, saying nothing profound, nothing about them is different on the last page from the first page. This was a complete waste of money and time.
on June 10, 2011
I so looked forward to reading this book, even pre-ordered it. And am not able to finish. Obrecht has little emotional connection to her characters and even less to the Balkans. The book traffics in stereotypes and invents bizarre dark details about local customs and folklore that are simply not true (do a Google search). Her knowledge of the region's past seems superficial, as does her grip on the local languages (her repertoire of "local" names and places, for example, is linguistically odd and quite limited).
Once I started reading, I hoped that the quality of the writing would compensate for these shortcomings. It's fiction, after all, and I suppose Obrecht is free to invent anything, even if it's offensive or historically/ culturally inaccurate. But the book did not transport me with its writing style. Quite the contrary. The writing is flat, grating, and could have used more editing in places. Some reviewers describe her style and power of perception as "mature" - I would argue the opposite.
The Balkans is a beautiful, troubled, complicated part of the world. There are millions of people who will, for the rest of their lives, try to come to terms with the recent war experience. And, yes, it's a place where story-telling matters. But this book does not capture any of that vibrant and complex reality.