The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Review by David Plick

It took me a little under three minutes to find The Tiger’s Wife in my local bookstore. I had to look beyond that table in front, the one you practically run into if you’re not paying attention, which featured Janet Jackson’s memoir, Donald Rumsfeld’s, I Swear I’m Not the World’s Biggest A-hole, several hardcover bestsellers, and one book of literary fiction, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, to the column directly behind it, where Obreht, at the tender age of twenty-five, the youngest on The New Yorker’s illustrious “20 Under 40″, had her first novel and it’s golden tiger shining out proudly on the bottom shelf. Of course I had to find out what all the hype was about.

The Tiger’s Wife layers three war-ridden narratives, which would’ve been more powerful if they were independent novellas, that start to criss-cross towards the end. The muddled rendering, consisting of unnecessary story lines and characters–which sometimes end up unresolved–told by two narrators with varying degrees of skill and charm, leads to some confusing reading (I constantly had to refer back to remind myself who someone was), which makes the novel difficult to adequately describe. But I’ll do my best.

In the present action of the story we follow Natalia, a young doctor in post civil-war Yugoslavia (exact locations are never disclosed), on her way to volunteering at an orphanage as she learns of her grandfather’s death. The two of them were very close and she copes with her grief by re-experiencing two magical tales from his past. As Natalia tells us: “Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man.”

The bulk of the novel then consists of the two mythical flashbacks during Natalia’s grandfather’s (he lacks a name beyond “grandfather”) World War II consumed childhood in a small village called Galina, and his work as a medical doctor during the Bosnian War. Out of the three narrative threads, only one, the story of the deathless man, remains interesting from beginning to end. This is because it is narrated by Natalia’s grandfather. While she tries to tell a story, her grandfather is simply a genuine storyteller.

The story of the deathless man is about his fifty-year relationship with Gavran Gailé, the nephew of Death (yes, like the Grim Reaper), who is forever indebted to his uncle and assigned the job of gathering up the world’s lost souls. Gailé and Natalia’s grandfather met during a battle while he was a triage assistant and the deathless man was alarming people of their impending expiration. After that they randomly encountered each other through the years (including a wonderful scene where they have dinner together as buildings and homes, a whole town, explodes all around them). For the most part these sections of the novel are very charming and captivating. And it is all of these things precisely because of Natalia’s grandfather’s narration. His storytelling, because it is directly quoted speech which was told to Natalia, is much more natural than his granddaughter’s. It’s simple and honest, energetic, and very funny. If there’s any problem with this component of the book, it’s that there’s not enough of it.

Natalia narrates both the story of the tiger’s wife and the “present” action when she is at the orphanage. The story of the tiger’s wife, the most lengthy narrative of the novel, is her grandfather’s coming-of-age tale about how, as a child in Galina, he came to the defense of a deaf-mute woman against villagers (the personification of the “angry mob”) who believed she was mysteriously impregnated by a loose tiger. In a mythical novel like this it’s not so hard to believe that a woman would be impregnated by a tiger. What is actually hard to believe though, is Natalia’s storytelling. In this section her voice is sometimes so overwritten and self-consciously literary (“ … his musical talent never quite caught up to his prowess as a lyricist”), that at times it makes it hard to believe, and more importantly, feel, much of what she says.

Natalia’s narration also relies far too heavily on Obreht’s incredible ability to write long, lyrical sentences, which summarize events and people’s lives in seconds, instead of letting the reader experience the events and lives themselves.

… people say he was a little in love with her. He was a little in love with her while he walked the woods at the bottom of the mountain, reading the signs of the tiger in the snow, and a little in love with her as he opened the jaws of bear traps along the fence where the tiger would come through. He was a little in love with her that second morning, when he went out to check the traps and found them closed empty, shut over nothing, slammed down over dead air; a little in love with her when he made an announcement to the whole village …

The story of the tiger’s wife is also unnecessarily long and drawn-out, and about three quarters of the way through it becomes uninteresting. The character noted in the quote above, Darisa the Bear, is introduced on page 239, yet, for some reason, we hear his entire life story (“To understand this …” Natalia tells us of Darisa. “You have to go back to his childhood …”). That’s the thing, no we didn’t. The Tiger’s Wife lacks the emotional punch it could have because the irrelevant storylines extinguish the novel’s steam. Many pages of this book could’ve been cut, with that narrative energy being directed elsewhere (like explaining how her grandfather actually died).

The Tiger’s Wife though, isn’t a character driven book. It’s not a work of gripping realism with tangible, salient characters and issues to wrestle with. It’s a novel about myth and magic and it is meant to dazzle. It’s about how, and the villagers of Galina exemplify this behavior precisely, people use cultural myth to cope with the natural cruelties of their existence. The characters in Obreht’s novel, Natalia, her grandfather, and all Slavic people, are dealing with several wars, bitter cultural disputes, and they fill their lives with these myths to heal their pain. These stories bind them in their ignorance of the unknown and the trembling fear of their reality. Natalia and her grandfather aren’t pious people–as doctors they are both only loyal to medicine–yet they both believe.

David Plick

About the author:

David Plick is a graduate of the MFA creative writing program at The City College of New York, where he was a recipient of the 2011 Henry Roth Memorial Scholarship for his novel, Only Whales Keep a Schedule. He is a co-founder and an editor of the cultural journal, Construction. His stories have appeared in Fiction, Iconoclast, HotType, Promethean, and Xenith.

    1 comment to The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

    • Rachel

      I was glad to find out I wasn’t the only one who thought “about three quarters of the way through it becomes uninteresting”.

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