The Tiger’s Wife
By: Tea Obreht
In a Balkan country mending from war, Natalia, a young doctor, is compelled to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. Searching for clues, she turns to his worn copy of The Jungle Book and the stories he told her of his encounters over the years with “the deathless man.” But most extraordinary of all is the story her grandfather never told her—the legend of the tiger’s wife.
This is a book that I’ve heard a lot of buzz in the past year. The author won the 2011 Orange Prize and received a lot of praise from the media. After hearing from a particular blog that I regularly visit that the book was one of the best he’s read in the past year, I decided to check it out for myself. Contains some spoilers ahead!
Having finished reading the book, I’m not entirely sure what to think of it. I can sort of see why the media lauded praise for this book as it does have a dash of magical realism and tackles a number of themes set in the war-torn Balkan region. At the same time, I can see why I’ve heard a lot of negative reviews about this novel. While I don’t mind a novel that moves as a slow pace, this novel does so in a way that unfortunately started to lose my interest somewhere halfway. However, you have to pay special attention to the narrative as the narration moves back and forth between the past and present–and sometimes to two different points in the past. Again, while I don’t really mind this, it did leave me wondering “So what? How does this connect back to the overarching narrative?”
I guess it’s that overarching narrative that some people had problems with: what was the overarching narrative? The novel is ultimately after a grandfather’s relationship with his granddaughter, the stories he once told her and the impact he had on her life. It’s obviously a close and sometimes maddening relationship and his disappearance and death has obviously affected his family, including his granddaughter Natalia who goes out in search of his possessions (which were not returned) and what really happened to him. Because the focus was on that relationship and the stories from her grandfather’s life, the character development remained underwhelming. I would have liked to have seen more interaction between Natalia and her grandmother (who remained off-screen for the most part), especially as the grandmother comes to terms with the loss of her grandfather. Additionally, I thought Natalia was not very well developed as a character nor appealed to my sympathy; as the primary narrator of the novel, I never get a sense of personality from her, as though she was just as bleak as the harsh realities of her environment. Her interactions with other people remained subdued, lacking energy and vibrance even when she’s in conflict with the person she’s talking to. Her grandfather in contrast is much more interesting when he’s the narrator, if only because he’s the primary participant in the strange course of events that had taken place in his life.
This brings me to my favourite aspect of the novel: Gavran Gaile, the deathless man. When the narrative switches over to the grandfather, often the stories were about the mysterious Gavran Gaile who seemingly cannot die. Her grandfather’s skepticism and gruffness works in this scenario because it makes the story especially interesting. Through his interactions with Gavran, the reader can really engage with the issues and complexities of how we associate with death as a society and as an individual (though the grandfather’s death introduced at the start of the novel also draws out this theme). This story really brought out the magical realism factor for me, moreso than the stories about Darisa the bear and the tiger and the tiger’s wife (which only took up a small portion of the overall story).
Overall, The Tiger’s Wife is an impressive debut, presenting the realities and the bleakness resulting from war. The end of the novel in particular brought certain elements together and a close to Natalia’s grandfather’s death. Unfortunately, this novel also left me a little cold: the characters lacked any distinct personality and depth and some of the themes that this novel tackled remained elusive. I’m going to have to re-read this novel at some point in the future to see if time would change my approach to the novel but in the meantime, I think I might have to steer clear of novels of magical realism involving animals.