Apart from winning the Orange Prize for Fiction, I didn’t know much about this book. It was lent to me last year by Mr. and Mrs. S when I spied the attractive cover on their coffee table. It took me a few months to finally get around to reading it, and now that I have finally finished, I’m still not sure what to make of it.
It took me a while to get into The Tiger’s Wife – even after two weeks, I had hardly read two chapters. By this point I realised that I would have to make a conscious effort to carry on, or I would be stuck on one book all month! I did eventually start to enjoy the book, but the plot was patchy; at times intriguing and magical, at others I found it dull and long-winded.
The Tiger’s Wife is set in the Balkans. It is not clear exactly where, but this does not hinder the storyline. It is not necessary to know exactly which borders and nationalities we are reading about as it is only the atmosphere of war, death and loss that the author is trying to capture.
Natalia, the narrator, is a doctor travelling to ‘the other side’ to an orphanage to deliver vaccines. On the journey, she receives a phone call telling her of her grandfather’s death. Natalia had been aware of her grandfather’s terminal illness, but why had he decided to travel to an unknown town in the middle of nowhere just before he died? It sets Natalia thinking about her close relationship with her grandfather and all the memories that they shared. Pieced together with other tales that she has learnt since, The Tiger’s Wife is a combination of memories, stories from her grandfather, and rumours and old tales that Natalia has discovered and researched herself.
The reader is constantly going back and forth between the many stories and memories that Natalia is retelling. Sometimes the link between the stories can be a bit confusing but as you go along, things do start to fit together. Always there is the theme of death and loss hanging over the plot. This creates a contemplative atmosphere but there is also a nice splash of humour in the mix, giving the book a good balance.
One of my favourite tales is about the meetings the grandfather has with ‘the deathless man’. The stories are intriguing, the deathless man himself is humorous and I found myself wanting to know more about him.
There are also many chapters dedicated to the grandfather’s childhood in the tiny village of Galina. A tiger has escaped from a zoo and made his way to the mountains above the village, to hide and hunt. In such a superstitious place, the villagers believe he is a devil. Natalia’s grandfather is only a small boy, but he is not afraid of this large creature and takes to carrying around a copy of The Jungle Book, which he keeps on him until his dying day. There is also a deaf-mute girl in the village who seems to have a special bond with the tiger and will eventually be known throughout the village as ‘the tiger’s wife’.
The best parts of The Tiger’s Wife for me were actually the parts that let the book down. Téa Obreht is a beautiful storyteller and she breathes life into the back stories of characters such as Luka the butcher and Bariša the Bear. Unfortunately these detailed back stories distract from the main plot of the book and leave the reader feeling tangled in the threads of too many stories.
It is a shame, as these stories are brilliant within their own right. They have hints of magical realism, a surreal and mythical quality and excellent attention to detail, which Téa Obreht pulls off expertly. Unfortunately these often lengthy back stories don’t merge well with the more recent past of Natalia’s life. When reading about the present day and Natalia’s more recent memories, the writing feels flat and cold in comparison. Perhaps this clash is intentional, but it only made me appreciate the book less as a whole.
The Tiger’s Wife covers some deep topics that I find immensely interesting. The storyline is enjoyable on one level – as a story. But when I try to delve a bit deeper into the mysteries of death and the superstitions surrounding it, I just feel that there is something missing. I felt as though each chapter should be unravelling a new secret or mystery to a deeper meaning of the story, but it never quite got there for me. By the end of the book, I was left feeling a bit indifferent to a book which I believe could have been much better.
I can’t help but think that with a different approach this book could have been much more appealing. Told from a different point of view, without Natalia’s narrative, the book could have had a lot more feeling. For example, I believe that an account from the grandfather himself could have been a lot more poignant and moving.
If you would like to try the book for yourself, you can by it by clicking on the picture below!