A much touted novel rates mid-scale
“The Tiger’s Wife,” by Téa Obreht, was named one of the top ten books of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly and Library Journal. It was also a National Book Award finalist, a New York Times Bestseller, and a book of the year of Oprah Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly and the Chicago Tribune. It’s gotten a lot of hype. When my book club chose it, I was intrigued. I had interest, which mostly held on, and I savored some pages. In the end, I was somewhat disappointed. Most of my book club, and I, gave it three out of five stars.
Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1997. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Times, and has been in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading. “The Tiger’s Wife,” published by Random House in March 2011, is her first novel. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty.
The main character, so we think, is Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor working in what seems to be Croatia. She is there to give medical care to orphaned children but is also in search of answers about the death of her beloved grandfather. She was raised on readings from “The Jungle Book” (which he always carried with him) and his tales from the village he grew up in, where, following German bombing in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo in a nearby city and bonded with a deaf-mute woman who fed it. The tiger’s wife, as she became known, was a great influence on the grandfather’s life. Her story is one of three trails in the novel, the other two being Natalia’s current life, and her grandfather’s stories about Gavran Gailé, the deathless man, whose presence always means a tale of death itself.
A flow of life, and the power of memory, superstition and the creation of myth runs through the book, one being a modern day misconception that a buried relative’s body is making the village children ill, another being the man who offers coffee and waits to carry your soul to the crossroads. There are great moments of poetic prose to be read here; there are also moments of tedium and others of confusion. As reader, I simply wished to know why the grandfather would seemingly go off to die alone. What we find is the reason behind many of his living actions, so that the main character becomes the grandfather and Natalia is left to wait in the shadow of memory.
“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. 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,” Natalia Stevanovi.
“The Tiger’s Wife” shows promise for Obreht’s career and still has the literary community talking. It wasn’t the best I’ve read, but it was worthy of a read.
“The Tiger’s Wife,” by Téa Obreht, Random House, $15, ISBN: 978-0-385-34384-8.