The Tiger’s Wife
I had high hopes for this book after reading the prologue. In it, the narrator describes her earliest memory: an “altercation” she witnessed during one of her weekly visits to the zoo with her grandfather. Listen to the first three and a half minutes of this audiobook excerpt, which describe her memory of that tangle between a zookeeper and an angry tiger:
The prologue is representative of one of the strengths of the book. Obreht creates unique characters, whom she introduces by describing major events in their lives. Their background stories are creative and engaging. This is the method she uses to develop Dariša, hunter and taxidermist; Luka, the abusive musician/butcher; and Kasim, the dignified but very ugly apothecary. With these background stories, the book explains not only who the characters are but why they are who they are.
But, ironically, it turns out this is also the book’s biggest failure. Where Obreht succeeds with the secondary characters, she flops with the grandfather, the most important character in the novel.
Ostensibly (according to Obreht in this interview), the book is “about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.” The narrator, Natalia, is a young doctor who travels across an unnamed border in the Balkans (very reminiscent of the Croatia-Serbia border) with her best friend to provide inoculations to orphans. While en route, Natalia finds out that her grandfather, with whom she shared a special relationship, has just died somewhat unexpectedly in a town far from home.
In her attempt to come to grips with his death and understand why he traveled away from home before he died, Natalia delves into her grandfather’s past. She explains: “Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. [. . .] One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.” The book then weaves the tales of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man together with Natalia’s present day trip and her memories of her relationship with her grandfather.
The magical realist tales of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man are tinged with both darkness and hope. They are vivid and detailed, and they are the most interesting parts of the novel. The tales give you a glimpse into the grandfather’s past. But, in sharp contrast to the background stories of the secondary characters, the grandfather’s background tales are not incorporated into a solid explanation of how these experiences shaped him thereafter. We understand that these two stories were defining moments in the grandfather’s life, but we don’t know enough about the present-day grandfather (before his death) to appreciate how the tiger’s wife and the deathless man affected him. Oddly, we are given a glimpse of why he is who he is without being provided enough context to understand why that matters. Without that context, the whole book seems kind of pointless.
Natalia’s present-day story feels like an afterthought. You care more about the characters whose stories she retells than you do about her. And, thus, the book as a whole feels disjointed. It reads like a group of individual stories that are lumped ungracefully together.
The Tiger’s Wife has a lot of strengths: unique and engaging characters, an arresting setting, and, at times, really beautiful writing . . . but, for me, Obreht failed to unite the individual strengths to form a purposeful whole.
Obreht’s real-life story made me want to love her book. She was born in 1985 (!) in the former Yugoslavia and fled with her family when war erupted in 1992. This is her debut novel, and it was published in 2011, when she was only 25. It won the U.K.’s Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for fiction) and was a National Book Award finalist.
Unfortunately, I wanted to like the book more than I actually did. I struggled for a while to decide what rating to give it. While some parts are beautifully written, other parts drag (I found myself having to go back and reread pages numerous times because my mind had wandered).
There are several great stories within the story, but they don’t come together well. Frankly, it would have made for a better collection of short stories (without the inclusion of the narrator’s weak present-day plot).
Who should read it: my friend–and very soon to be new mom!–Shana (i.e., people who have spent some time in the Balkans and would thus appreciate the varied and interesting locational and cultural descriptions).
What’s your take?
This is another book that’s been sitting on my Kindle for quite some time, so I’m guessing several of you have already read it. I’m curious to hear what you think. If you’ve read it, let me know what rating you would give The Tiger’s Wife, and please feel free to leave a comment with your impression of the book (especially if you disagree with me!).