Téa Obreht's "The Tiger's Wife" comes with a fair degree of hype from the US, and largely it lives up to it, which is no small achievement. The main story is set in Yugoslavia and explores a young doctor, Natalia, seeking for the truth about her grandfather's death, while on a mission to deliver much needed medical aid to an orphanage in the war-ravaged Balkans. But what sets this book apart is the intricate weaving of reality with the myths and stories of the region. In particular there are two myths that represent a good chunk of the page count: the story of a tiger who has escaped from captivity after the World War two bombing of Belgrade and who has settled near a remote mountain village where Natalia's grandfather is growing up, and who develops a strange relationship with a deaf-mute girl who becomes known as "the tiger's wife"; and a mysterious story of the "Deathless Man" whom the grandfather encounters at various points in his life who appears to have the power to foresee others' death without being able to die himself.
Lovers of folk stories will love this combination, while those with a lack of tolerance for the more magical storytelling genre will inevitably find less appeal here. If you enjoyed Yann Martel's "Life of Pi", another tiger-featuring imaginative book, then this will be right up your street.
It's a surprisingly ambitious structure for such a young, first-time author and in most respects, she carries it off with aplomb, although I suspect that with a little more experience, some of the storytelling could have been tightened up slightly which would have enhanced the impact. At times the stories seem to drift on a bit. There were certainly times when it had me completely wrapped up in the stories but at others I found myself more admiring than loving it.
At the heart of the book are the stories and superstitions that people have, particularly about trying to make sense of death, but also of war and conflict. Both of the main folk tales involve dealing with fear and ignorance. In part these stories survive in spite of, and perhaps because of conflict, but no matter who owns the lands, the stories remain with the people. Evidence of the cultural mix is abundant in the myths themselves - one reason for the eponymous tiger's wife's ostracism from village life is that she is a Muslim in a Christian village. Yet part of the message seems to be that "you can take away our land, but you cannot take away our stories", while at the same time the conflicts themselves give rise to even more folk tales to make sense of things.
At times, Obreht writes with terrific beauty and always with a rich imagination and sense of love both to the Balkan region and in the relationship between Natalia and her grandfather, a good doctor himself who carries with him a tattered copy of "The Jungle Book". She also concentrates on the human story rather than getting dragged into the politics of the region, which is a good thing.
It's a magical and beautiful set of stories. She has the ability to describe rich lives in a few short pages, and it's here that the book positively soars. However, at times also the stories seem to take on a life of their own and would benefit from reigning in a little. I'd urge you to read this though and make up your own mind. There's no doubt though that Obreht is an exciting new talent.
on 16 June 2011
If you are a devotee of folklore and magic realism, The Tiger's Wife might appeal to you, but it did nothing for me. I dutifully ploughed my way through, hoping things would pick up, but they never did. I don't doubt that Tea Obreht can write, but I found this dull and heavy handed, sinking under the weight of its own self consciousness. There was far too much back-story to the characters which had the effect of dragging things down instead of moving things forward. The histories of all the people who graced its pages; the butcher, the blacksmith, Darisa the Bear, his sister Magdalena, the tiger's wife's sister etc. etc. were over-long and overdrawn. Even as the book should have been drawing to a close we still had to endure interminable detail about people like the apothecary and blind Orlo. There was clunky symbolism; many, many unnecessary characters (what was the point of Zora?); too much clutter, and no clear line through. Although set in the former Yugoslavia there is a lack of specificity, factions are referred to as simply `the other side' so I was never really clear who was who, which didn't aid my understanding of this conflict. Of course that was deliberate but it didn't work.
Much has been written in the other reviews about the deathless man and the tiger's wife herself (of whom the author unwisely tries to conjure up a logical explanation at the end). I just felt it was all a load of hokum.
The reading group notes in the back of the book were crass. I can't imagine them stimulating any debate (Was it any good? would be my first discussion question). There was even a two page plot summary preceding them. Presumably for those who just turn up for the wine and the company and can't be bothered reading the actual book (in this case, a good plan).
Two stars might seem unfair, I've given three to much worse books but I felt entitled to some redress. After spending so many wasted evenings losing the will to live I was beginning to feel like the deathless woman. A lot of people will be rushing to buy this book since it won the Orange Prize. I would say don't bother. Go back to the short list. Read Aminatta Forna (my personal first choice), Emma Donoghue, Emma Henderson, Nicole Krauss ... all different in their own way and all more satisfying than this.
on 14 October 2011
This novel is hugely frustrating. An ambitious and clever concept with some elements of superb storytelling, it is ultimately too baggy and disjointed to be properly engaging. The same is true of Tea Obreht's writing; some of it is hauntingly beautiful and evocative, but she is horribly prone to overblown descriptions and subclauses.
The Tiger's Wife is a natural choice for book groups, but I would urge them to avoid the suggestions for discussion at the back of my edition (a Phoenix paperback). If "Why, in Darisa's dream, were the tiger and his wife always eating heads?" is one of the most pertinent questions raised by the novel, then I really have missed something.
on 10 June 2011
I probably would have wanted to read Téa Obreht's debut novel at some point regardless of its inclusion on the Orange Prize long and short lists and then winning it because, regardless of the hype of her being claimed a young writer to watch, I like books that are rather magical and `fairytale for grown ups' was one of the things I kept hearing in regard to `The Tiger's Wife' when it was mentioned. It is also a novel about the country formerly known as Yugoslavia and its break up, a subject which fascinates me. I actually holidayed there as a child and was fascinated by the news as this country was torn apart. So its interesting that while aspects of it were brilliance, overall I was left a tiny bit let down. Let me explain...
For me one of the greatest charms of `The Tiger's Wife' was the story of the relationship between grandfather and grandchild. Our narrator, Natalia a doctor, tells us the tale of her grandfather's life from the memories she has of him and the tales that he told her of his former life after she learns from her grandmother that he has died in mysterious circumstances and after he disappeared telling everyone he was going to see Natalia. It's the mystery, the fact some of his possessions are missing and the need to understand him that sets Natalia on a mental, rather than physical, journey to work out just who her grandfather was.
The thing I loved about the novel also became the thing that I didn't love so much about it. As the story goes on we are introduced to the myths and fables of her grandfather's life. Whilst I love these sort of `fairytales for adults', sometimes I was just confused by them. I would read them, like the tale of the deathless man, really enjoy them and yet be left wondering as to their relevance as a whole. In being rather surreal I felt that Téa Obreht lost me in places no matter how enjoyable, funny and magical the mini story which creates the overall story (anyone else getting a bit confused?) was I couldn't get it to work overall.
The same applied to the title character/fable of `The Tiger's Wife', it was all wonderfully written and inventive but... but... but... something wasn't quite working for me. It seemed in some ways to be a book made up of many things, yes I know most books are but these things didn't quite connect. It seemed to want to be a book of myth and of storytelling, a book of war and a book of love - both of the family and a love story in some ways. I thought the way Obreht discussed how the country was fracturing and yet no one initially sensed danger until loved ones went missing was superb. It was only a part of the book though. In some ways there were two books in one. In fact the best way to summarise this novel would be to say that I think the sum of its parts are fantastic, and would have made a great short story collection yet as a body of work it didn't quite gel in the way I was hoping or maybe even expecting, that could be me more than the book or the author.
That said I did like this novel a lot. I particularly enjoyed the mini-stories, and would happily read a collection of fables should Téa Obreht write one, in fact I am hoping she does. As for the hype around Téa Obreht being one of the finest young authors around, I would agree to an extent. I found the writing in `The Tiger's Wife' was impressive, funny, dark, honest, and quite compelling in many respects. I just didn't quite connect with it personally (where emotion is occasionally lacking imagination is certainly in abundance) yet I certainly enjoyed getting lost, and occasionally confused by it. I will definitely read her next novel or collection.
It is easy to see why this book won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. It has an unusual theme and approach, weaving together a grandfather's tall stories based on Balkan-style folktales and the experience of Natalia, a young doctor trying to cope with the aftermath of the grim war which caused the recent fracture of the former Yugoslavia, and with the death of her much-loved grandfather. Still only in her mid-twenties, the author is a gifted storyteller with an impressive command of English learned as a second language. I am not sure whether she sometimes misuses words by mistake, or is just trying to be original and poetical, but you cannot deny Tea Obreht's striking and unusual use of language.
Although I am no lover of magic realism, I was most impressed by the storytelling, in particular the tale of the "deathless man" who cannot be killed, even if shot through the head or drowned - a sceptical scientist, Natalia's grandfather is tantalised by the mounting evidence for this which flies in the face of reason. Obreht clearly loves animals, of which there are some wonderful descriptions - the tiger leaving footprints in the snow, round as dinner plates, or the elephant recaptured after its escape from the war-damaged zoo.
At first I was irritated by the lack of clarity as to exactly which country we are in - Montenegro, Croatia. Bosnia ? - which border we are close to, and so on. Then I realised that this is not the point. Obreht simply wants to create a sense of the superstition and prejudice, the deep-seated and irrational hatred between Christians and Moslems, the brutality and unthinking futility of war, and the residue of damage for the survivors. Then there is of course the simple expression of grief over the death of a close relative, regardless of whether there is peace or war.
I found the descriptions of Natalia's work the least satisfying, too many minor scenes of little interest, and in need of editing. Some of the later tales told to Natalia by her grandfather become rather tedious and rambling, getting bogged down in excessive back story about the early lives of Luka the sadistic butcher, Darisa the bear hunter and the village apothecary.
From the outset, Obreht skilfully manages to arouse the reader's interest by covering events through a series of separate scenes which move back and forth in time. Natalia's attempt to find out more about her grandfather's death and to obtain his belongings has a touch of the detective novel. Towards the end, the plot loses structure and pace. Again perhaps deliberately, it becomes even more fragmented and further parts company with reality, proving a little too fey and nebulous for my taste, although there is a persistent rather odd attempt to provide rational explanations for implausible events.
on 26 September 2011
Found this book initially difficult to read, but, given the hype, I strove on. This lasted until page 100. The Tiger's Wife is over-descriptive to the point of despair - making it a very slow and frustrating read, where large chunks could easily be left out. If compressed to a short story it would be a worthwhile read; otherwise, avoid.
on 8 August 2012
The book is certainly beautifully written, with touches of subtle humour and elegantly drawn characters.
However, the more I read, the more I struggled - I felt like I was missing the point of it. I had no idea where it was going, what the point was, or what the ending signified. I felt completely empty afterwards, and just relieved that it was over.
However a colleague of mine is Serbian and she loved it, and could see all the deep meanings in it, which makes me think it is full of allusions and symbolism that seem completely random unless you know where it's coming from.
That was what really frustrated me about it - I thought it would be an opportunity to learn about Balkan history, when actually the book only makes sense if you already know about it. Even the fact that she never states what country it's set in - it's meant to be 'obvious' to the reader, but to me it wasn't, which just made me feel stupid. It may be a clever book, but that cleverness is inaccessible - which really isn't what I believe books should be about.
The publisher's suggested Reading Group Questions at the end were also mind-boggling - eg. 'Why to the villagers keep painting the dog?' I DON'T KNOW! Does anyone know!? How does this question help my understanding of the book?!
(Sigh. Frustration vented. Thanks for listening.)
on 23 July 2011
The Tigers Wife is one of the best books I have read to date. Téa Obrehts writing is gentle, moving, funny and has a maturity that is rarely seen in a debut novel. The setting is fantastic, colourful and beautiful. The story weaves together several aspects of the surreal and real but it is ultimately a story of loss, understanding and the tranformative magic of journey, betweeen place,generations, time and worlds.
I cannot say enough good things about this book and no review I read before reading it did it justice. Read it for yourself and find out!
I'm disappointed that I didn't like this debut novel as much as I thought I would. It has all the elements which usually appeal to me in literary fiction - magical realism usually enthralls me and its juxtaposition with the harsh realities of a recent civil war is undoubtedly cleverly structured and manipulated by the author. However, it didn't succeed in engaging me emotionally. I'm not sure if this was partly due to my indifference to the protagonist Natalia as I found her deceased grandfather a much more vivid character - perhaps the past is indeed a foreign country and a much more interesting place than the present.
It is obvious that the author is very talented and capable of producing stunningly beautiful writing but, for me, the disconnected nature of the novel, both structurally and emotionally made it a good but not great piece of writing. I'm looking forward to seeing how Ms Obreht's writing develops in future works.
on 14 October 2011
The Tiger's Wife is set in former Yugoslavia in the years following the recent war. It follows Natalia, a young doctor on an aid mission to an orphanage who learns of her grandfather's death of cancer, as she seeks to find answers to the circumstances surrounding her grandfather's death.
Obreht has a natural talent for story-telling and the story of Natalia's grandfather's life is told as a series of myths and folktales. The main story of the Tiger's Wife relates to a tiger that escapes from the zoo and settles in the forests surrounding the grandfather's boyhood village. The tiger is a constant and ominous presence for the villagers and is befriended by the mistreated, deaf-mute wife of the local butcher. The second main tale concerns that of the Deathless Man, who the grandfather encounters a few times throughout his life. This is a young man who can foresee the death of others whilst not being able to age or die himself. The author tells these tales beautifully and they are absorbing. The backdrop of a country recovering from war emphasises the need for people to retain their traditions and identities through the passing down of stories.
This book was a lovely read and I can see why it won the Orange Prize, the prose is beautiful and the stories are original and compelling. My main problem with the book is that it didn't come together as a whole. I liked the tale of the Deathless Man and I liked the story of the Tiger's Wife but they were completely unrelated to one another. I thought the stories would overlap somehow but all they had in common was the grandfather. I think this book is worth less as a whole than the sum of its parts so perhaps Obreht should have limited the number of stories within this book and saved them for her future novels. She is young and obviously brimming with ideas so I'm sure there will be much more to come from her. This is a wonderful read but not quite good enough to get 5 stars from me.