The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Although I live in France, speak the language and love to read, I confess I don’t read nearly enough in French and admit I am holding any intent in that direction in abeyance for a while, comfortable with the certain knowledge that I will indulge the desire eventually. The last novel I bought in French was a translation of The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel, a gift for my friend B, so she could read it in her ‘langue maternelle‘. It is serendipitous then, that she bought me ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ for Christmas, another novel with an unforgettable feline presence. We will share the experience of our respective tigers soon, the discussion sure to cross both languages.

And so to Téa Obreht’s debut novel and Orange prize winning ‘The Tiger’s Wife’.

I do enjoy traversing cultures and storytelling whose origins are unfamiliar, requiring an open mind and suspension of judgement. Obreht brings us to a land that has been split in two, where crossing a border causes suspicion and having the wrong accent or name can be dangerous.

Natalia is a young doctor who travels with her friend Zora across a hostile border to bring medicine to an orphanage. On her way she learns that her dying Grandfather has followed her and passed away in a neighbouring village. His personal effects, including his copy of ‘The Jungle Book’ that he always keeps with him are missing; Natalia takes a detour during her visit to retrieve them, enabling her family to render their funereal rituals in peace.

A  simple story, there is little depth to the living characters, we don’t spend much time with or get to know Natalia’s mother, grandmother or her travelling companion Zora. The contemporary story outline is a frame within which to retell stories and reflect on memories the grandfather shared with Natalia, presented as flashbacks.

However, this is where Obreht’s narrative really shines, when the deathless man appeared everything came into focus and I was hooked. The grandfather’s encounters and conversations with the deathless man are curious and engaging. We meet the equally legendary villagers of Galina where he grew up and in a fable-like manner, we learn how the background of these characters led to their subsequent behaviour and the role of the Tiger’s wife.

We encounter village rumour, superstition, stories and incidents where truth and the imagination make equal contribution to the version passed on or ‘dug up’ in the present day. The stories often feature a well-intended, admirable type such as Luka, the butcher’s son and Dariša the bear hunter, transformed by events which see their nature change, the humble youngster becoming a wife-beater, the caring turning brutal, the compassionate victimised.

Framing stories within another story can be distracting, particularly when we have a preference for one over the other and when the narrative voice changes; it reminds me of the Rumi scholar and novelist Elif Shafak’s book The Forty Rules of Love’ which I adored for the most part, the fable like story of the dervish Shams unfolds like an exotic journey; the contemporary story within which it was framed didn’t work so well, though I do recommend the book.

I hope more novelists succeed in crossing cultures and bringing into the light their stories, myths and family legends with creative inspiration.

Lest we forget.

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19 thoughts on “The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

  1. Another interesting review, and always always worth the read.

    Your opening about language strikes at a topic under discussion today. it seems presidential candidate Gingrich has poked fun at candidate Romney’s ability to speak French, sheesh.

    Anyway, thank you!

    • Can’t even begin to comprehend what that is about, having watched the ‘John Adams’ TV series, I better understand the historical alliance (frustrated though it was) between the US and France, but in 21st Century politics, I’m not so sure of the message – well France’s credit rating just got downgraded today, which was good for the US dollar, this ad might encourage a few more visitors!

  2. I also enjoy being transported by words through exotic settings and into unfamiliar cultures. It can be disconcerting though when the reader becomes confused by flashback or stories within stories. Still, I’m curious now and will check into these two books. Thanks!

  3. I finished The TIger’s Wife in December (though in English!) and was most eager to hear your opinion. The book was written by a 25-year-old nominated for a National Book Award in America. I found the stories within the story compelling, but the characters were not as fleshed out as I’d like for them to be. The relationship between Natalia and her grandfather was especially fertile ground for adding dimension. I did enjoy the artsy, lyrical narrative and the exposure it provided to another culture.

    Speaking of another culture, I’m now reading IQ84 by Haruki Murakami. After these two epic tales, I’m going to be ready for some Hemingway! Though I’m early into IQ84, I recommend it and would like to hear what you think.

    • So good to hear from you Candyce and thank you for sharing your reading experience, it sounds similar to mine. I tried to steer away from commenting on the author, awards and things unrelated to the actual reading experience as popularity often seems to invite negative criticism.

      Interesting that you are into 1Q84, I may be on the same path, I have it on the shelf and had hoped to start it over Christmas; I have a couple of Irene Nemirovsky’s from the library to read first, but will be with Murakami soon for sure. Also thinking I should be picking up a Dicken’s some time soon in commeoration of his 200 year anniversary!

  4. I have ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ on my list to read, but have currently dipped into an usual genre for me–the supernatural, witches and vampires, oh my–which started with the Discovery of Witches. Although in between the dark side I did read The Other Boleyn Sister, which you love to hate… But I digress. I am a big fan of the story in the story books. I admire the skill of the writer, and if they are good at their job, they successfully pull the two together while keeping both plots moving along. I admire this skill, but has you say, for us readers we sometimes get annoyed if we prefer one story vs the other. I know The Time Traveler’s Wife was something like this ( and for the life of me I have tried to read this book twice and can’t) .. Oh well.

    • It’s an interesting concept the story in the story and it must be challenging to write, it seems almost inevitable that we have a preference for one over the other.
      I just watched ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ movie and really enjoyed it, I read the book many years ago and struggled a little with the timeframes but loved it. It has a fabulous poem in the front by Derek Walcott called ‘Love after Love’ which I adore.

  5. I read an excerpt from ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ that really impressed me and the book now sits patiently in my TBR pile. I also share your appreciation for fiction that crosses cultures and has mythological and/or fable-like undertones (yes, I loved ‘The Life of Pi’). All of which is to say, there’s clearly a reason I’m so drawn to your blog. Speaking of which, congrats on the Versatile Blogger Award (which I myself had the pleasure of receiving ;-) Now I know ever so much more about you and your affinity for other interesting nooks in Cyberspace.

  6. While I did have some complaints with The Tiger’s Wife, for the most part I enjoyed it. Of course many people have compared her to Garcia Marquez because of the magic realism, but considering this is her first novel and Marquez’s early novels were roughly hewn together in so many aspects, it wouldn’t surprise me if she eventually becomes his equal in terms of technique.

    • That’s interesting, I avoided reading too much about the book, so I could write about it in my own way, but I have not heard of her being associated with Marquez. When I think of magic realism, I am reminded of Murakami and the toal immersion that happens when you enter one of his books.

      With this book, it felt more like a story narrated alongside rather than entering into the other reality, I saw it as the villager’s superstitions, rumours and imaginings and not as another reality. I really enjoyed what she did create with those imaginings though, it is like the difference between perception and reality, she creates images of wildly imagined perceptions that we can identify with.

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