The Tiger’s Wife was, until recently, one of those books the entire blogosphere except me had already read. It’d been hailed by many a review as one of the most amazing recent discoveries, so I decided to give it a shot.
I was also intrigued by the setting of the novel, the post-war Balkans (which I know nothing about but would like to know more). The Tiger’s Wife weaves together different narratives. The one set in the present follows Natalia, a young doctor, on her journey across one of former Yugoslavia’s new borders in order to vaccinate children at an orphanage. On her way there, she learns that her grandfather has died under very strange circumstances in a hospital close to the village she is travelling to. So rather than turn around, she goes ahead on her vaccination trip in order to pick up his belongings which are still at the hospital. Meanwhile, she is suspended in a surreal limbo, going about her business while she comes to terms with her grandfather’s death, remembering the stories he used to tell her. The other narratives include precisely these stories, the most important one being that of the tiger’s wife, as well as memories of moments Natalia has shared with her grandfather.
The writing in The Tiger’s Wife is beautiful; I just loved the richness of the narrative voice. I know it’s been said before, but it is something like the Balkan’s magical realism. All the time, it was like old Gabo lurking just around the corner in order to have someone levitate. There’s a mute woman who loves a tiger, a deathless man, and so on. I wanted to immerse myself in that language, bathe in it and never get out.
However, for me there was a strange disconnect between the wonderfully crafted narrative voice and the content of The Tiger’s Wife. It’s difficult to describe, but just the richness of the language, to me, jarred with the content, especially in the parts dealing with the Balkan wars. I felt like the horrors of that time deserved something less “cutesy” (one of the reviews I read – I forget which one – called this the “Disneyification” of the Balkans and I can’t help agreeing with that).
The Tiger’s Wife is Téa Obreht’s first novel, and as such it is certainly a very important literary achievement.* But it did leave me wondering whether the fact that the language and the narrative were sometimes so strongly at odds with one another are a symptom of that. Maybe her voice will mature as she writes on?
I very much enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife as a bit of “lighter” reading. But I did get the feeling that precisely this lightness may not be the ideal choice for some of the horrific episodes narrated in the novel, like it needed some more Primo Levi rather than García Márquez.
* Does anyone else get that thing where suddenly people that achieve amazing things are younger than yourself? – I got a huge sense of underachievement out of the fact that Obreht was born in 1985.