The Tiger's Wife
by Téa Obreht (2011)
Knopf (2011)
338 pp

I really liked “Blue Water Djinn,” Téa Obreht’s short piece published last year during The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” season. However, when it was published in The New Yorker as the debut fiction piece in the 2009 fiction issue (June 8 and 15; my brief thoughts on this post), I was more or less indifferent to Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” and wasn’t looking forward to the novel it was clipped from. But, sometimes unable to withstand the hype (though I still haven’t read my copy of Franzen’s Freedom), after reading glowing review after glowing review — including David Abram’s statement, “It might just be the most finely-crafted novel I’ve ever read. Ever.” — I couldn’t forgo the opportunity to see this literary phenom take off in her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife.

All of the proclamations that Obreht is a talented author — whether up against the young or the old — are well founded. Certainly she’s a voice to follow. But before I go on, I don’t want to hid the ball: as great as she is at writing a sentence and in creating an atmosphere for a scene, I didn’t think the book’s pieces came together satisfactorily, even though the individual segments (and they do sometimes read like segments) are set up around the concept of folk lore and around a few common themes. In all honesty, when about three-quarters of the way through the book I started a new chapter that promised to delve deeply into the past of a heretofore unmentioned character who was, it was safe to say, going to be merely tangential to the main narrative strands, I almost quit the book. I had almost lost patience with the process of finding out what happened, a process that is drawn out much as it is for the principal character, our first-person narrator Natalia.

Natalia grew up during an ongoing Civil War in an unnamed country in the Balkans (in The New York Review of Books, Charles Simic says it is clearly Yugoslavia before and after the wars in the 1990s). When the book begins, the war is over, and Natalia is just beginning her career as a physician. For her first real real position, she and a friend have chosen to travel across the border (which, at one time, was not a border) to inoculate an orphanage in desperate need, even more so after the wars made so many orphans. But even before she arrives, she phones her grandmother and finds out that her beloved grandfather, also a physician, has died. He apparently told his wife that he was going to meet Natalia and ended up dying in a poor clinic in some clinic also across the border, relatively close to Natalia’s destination. On the one hand, this is plausible; he was a bit concerned about her choice to treat children, once offering her this bit of wisdom he’d gleaned from a lifetime of treating the dying:

He sat up, pushed his chair away from the table and rubbed his knees. “When men die, they die in fear,” he said. “They take everything they need from you, and as a doctor it is your job to give it, to comfort them, to hold their hand. But children die how they have been living — in hope. They don’t know what’s happening, so they expect nothing, they don’t ask you to hold their hand — but you end up needing them to hold yours. With children, you’re on your own. Do you understand?”

On the other hand, his destination was far enough away from Natalia that it was just as likely he was not really going to meet her. Natalia knew what her grandmother didn’t — that her grandfather was dying of cancer — but even with that knowledge she has no idea why he took off to die alone in an “obscure town called Zdrevkov on the other side of the border” — Zdrevkov used to be part of their country, and then was the enemy, and is now another country.

Natalia and her grandfather had a very special relationship. He recognized in her someone with whom he could share those special memories you keep to yourself. One is the story of the tiger’s wife, which he shared with her when they were young and used to visit, frequently, the tigers’ cage at the zoo.

My grandfather never refers to the tiger’s wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself — and will, for years and years.

But before we, or she, learn about the tiger’s wife and why she’s significant to this old man, we begin the story of another folkloric figure from her grandfather’s past: the deathless man. I very much enjoyed the handful of stories about the grandfather’s encounters with the deathless man, named Gavran Gailé, particularly the last one where they meet in a quiet restaurant as the loud bombings get closer outside. The waiter continues to serve them, as if it’s a matter of pride — which it probably is — to continue to do things right even in, perhaps especially in, the face of destruction.

The two stories of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man run through the book, interspersed with chapters focused on Natalia’s quest to find out more about her grandfather’s strange death. In a broader sense, though, The Tiger’s Wife is a series of stories from this war-torn region of the world and how several of the inhabitants there have dealt with the wars and with death, in particular with superstition and story-telling. Outside of the orphanage, for example, a man drives his sick children to dig, dig, dig in a vineyard. Natalia tries to intervene, tell the man to let the children rest, or, even better, receive treatment from their obvious maladies. But treatment from her is not what he’s after; that won’t cure their sickness:

“We’ve got a cousin in this vineyard, Doctor.” He spread his armes and gestured to the vines, from one side of the plot to the other. “Buried twelve years. During the war.” He was perfectly serious. “Doesn’t like it here, and he’s making us sick. When we find him we’ll be on our way.”

After decades of war destroying their villages and families, death is part of life; it is, in many forms, in their stories, and consequently this book — for better or for worse — reads like a collection of folktales. For example, the tiger at the center of this story is not the tiger the grandfather took Natalia to see at the zoo. Rather, this tiger was an inhabitant of the zoo when the Nazis bombed the city in 1941. At that time, cautiously, the tiger left its cage. With her gift at its best, Obreht tells how the tiger journeyed from the zoo to the outskirts of the grandfather’s childhood village. But along the way, there is death, thrown in almost casually but still with respect.

[The tiger] was noticed, too, by the city’s tank commander, who would go on to shoot himself three days later, and who mentioned the tiger in his last letter to his betrothed — I have never seen so strange a thing as a tiger in a wheat field, he wrote, even though, today, I pulled a woman’s black breast and stomach out of the pond at the Convent of Sveta Maria. The last person to see the tiger was a farmer on a small plot of land two miles south of the city, who was burying his son in the garden, and who threw rocks when the tiger got too close.

Since learning the story of the tiger and his wife is part of the fun in this book, I won’t go any further. And that reminds me: even though I almost stopped reading at the three-quarter mark, and even though I ended it thinking Obreht is talented but that this book adds up to less than its parts, this is an enjoyable book by a very talented writer who shows her talents particularly as the story of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man develop. I suppose that was one of the reasons it was so frustrating at times to go on tangents that felt more like writing exercises (and possibly had their origin there) than like substantial pieces of the book. And so I remain on the positive side of neutral, understanding why some people praise Obreht as a major new literary voice but somewhat mystified that this book is being praised as a major new piece of literature. It’s fine, indeed, but I think she’s got better work to come.

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