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Good editing would have yielded a better and shorter book
on 9 June 2013
Like many, I imagine, I was attracted to this book by the author's success in winning the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction with this her first novel which I found overlong.
Two stories entwine - that of Natalia, a young medic in the Balkans in the immediate aftermath of the War who attempts to deliver vaccines to an orphanage, and the story of her grandfather, who has just died, as both a young child and as a medical professor who accompanied her to visit a tiger in the city zoo with a copy of Kipling's The Jungle Book in his pocket.
A great deal of 20th century and contemporary history is included and one should not doubt the personal involvement of the author's family and friends in many areas providing background to the story. However, my enjoyment was severely constrained by the apparent lack of any effective editing.
The book is divided into chapters each of which includes to be one or more stories but which are expanded into page after page of meandering text, much of which strays well outside the borders of the original story. The story involving Natalia the vaccine deliverer is rather weak and the characters involved in it are, in my opinion, poorly presented with, perhaps, the exception of her friend Zora, and I could not understand her motivation to travel secretly to the place where her grandfather had died to retrieve his belongings.
The stories about Natalia's grandfather as a child and his dealings with the eponymous Tiger's Wife are more interesting are too often overshadowed by folk tales. It was also too great a challenge for the author to introduce a deaf-mute as a leading character. However, a series of more-or-less interesting chapters does not add up to a substantial novel. As the novel nears its end there is some rambling which, as suggested, should have been edited away. Does the back story about Luka, the husband of the Tiger's Wife, Darisa the Bear (hunter) and the apothecary Suleimanovic justify the space? not in my view.
The city of Sarobar is presumably Mostar and there really was a zoo in Belgrade that its citizens looked after until it was closed but such identifications add little to the novel. The story of Gavran Gaile, and its magic realistic centre, did not concern me but his involvement with two rational medical scientists certainly did.
One reviewer has suggested that the book might be intended for the teenager audience so this may be one reason for my lack of enthusiasm and engagement. I will probably read Obreht's next book to see how she deals with a subject that will presumably be less familiar to her.