4 July 2011

Review 34: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

This modern fairytale of family, superstition and death won the Orange Prize for fiction in June. The Orange prize, which celebrates outstanding and original work by female authors, gave the award to what had been seen as the underdog of the shortlist. Obreht is only 26 and this is her first novel and she was up against well established favourites such as Nicole Krauss. You can find the rest of the shortlist and more information about the prize here: http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/.

The Tiger's Wife is the quirky story of Natalia and her grandfather. Whilst it is set in Yugoslavia, there is no mention of real people or names and Belgrade is always referred to as simply 'the city'. The war has left boundaries changed and loyalties questioned. Natalia is a young doctor who is taking medication to a remote rural orphanage across the border into unnamed Bosnia. The novel opens with Natalia relating one of the many times that her grandfather took her to the city zoo to see the tigers and is swiftly followed by her finding out on the way to the orphanage that her grandfather has died. From then on Natalia's story of the orphanage is interspersed with tales of her childhood and her grandfathers story of his childhood in Galina, a tiny mountain village.

Throughout her grandfathers life is woven the eponymous tiger. This tiger escaped from the city zoo during a bombing and made its way to the forests above Galina where it terrifies the villagers and fascinates Natalia's grandfather whose most treasured possession is his copy of The Jungle Book. The other person affected by the tigers arrival is the tiger's wife, the Muslim deaf-mute wife of the butcher. The stories of the various villagers are cleverly woven together and many of secondary characters are fasincating creations.

Whilst Natalia is our narrator, her grandfather is the core of the novel. The story of his childhood is compelling and moving but we also hear about his life as a young man and his encounters with the deathless man. I think this strand of narrative was probably my favourite as Natalia's grandfather encounters this mysterious man at three points in his life. We learn what her grandfather was really like, for example on learning that a bombing is planned for Sarobor where he honeymooned with his wife, instead of leaving immediately he goes to the hotel they ate at to eat and remember the place before it is destroyed. He meets the deathless man there and their conversation at this point is one of the strongest parts of the novel.

Obreht has a wonderful, lyrical writing style that I found very readable. People and settings are evocatively described with beautiful motifs dark humour littered throughout. I would have happily read more about all the characters. I really enjoyed reading something unique, the story and the writing didn't feel at all derivative of anything else I have read. The different strands weave together across the novel and are all compelling, there isn't one element which you race through to get back to reading the others.

My only criticism would be the ending; I got very involved in the story and the final chapters felt as though they were building up to something that never happened. I wanted more emotional payoff. The novel has a rather majestic and grand feel to it at times and the ending was too focused and humble. I also felt there were a few elements I would have liked more details on, for example I wanted to know more about the deathless man. There is an element of mystery throughout the novel, nothing is really explained in great detail and it is never really clear whether we are supposed to believe everything that is related, and that is part of its appeal but I wanted a great level of emotional closure, as it were.

All in all, I thought this was a beautiful, bittersweet novel which seamlessly combined wonderful writing with excellent plot and really well written characters. A little bit of an anti-climatic ending was a shame but does not detract too much from the novel as a whole. The magical storytelling is woven carefully and beautifully and brings home the real tragedy of the Yugoslavian war. I would recommend trying this novel which is packed full of character and I look forward to reading whatever Obreht writes next.

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