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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
Published by Random House ISBN 978-0385343848
Paperback $15

Tea Obreht's was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1985, which made her just 25 years of age when she wrote The Tiger's Wife, which was nominated for the National Book Award last year. That is a remarkable accomplishment, one that had many people in awe of her talent.

The book tells the story of Natalia, a doctor in a war-torn country. Her grandfather, also a doctor, died in a remote town from an illness he kept hidden from his wife and daughter, but not from Natalia. Natalia spent a lot of time growing up with her grandfather; he took her to the zoo and read to her from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.

He also told her a story from his childhood about a woman called the Tiger's Wife. She was a young mute woman married to the town butcher, a man who physically abused her. No one in town would her help her, and when a tiger was on the loose and the butcher was sent out with other men to kill the tiger, the butcher never came back.

The tiger was seen going into the butcher's slaughterhouse at night, where the butcher's wife let him in. People in the town were frightened of her, and when she became pregnant, they feared the baby belonged to the tiger. Her only friend was Natalia's grandfather, then a young boy.

Natalia's grandfather also crossed paths with Gavran, a man who cannot die. The first time the young doctor meets him is when the man is shot and drowned in a river by a fearful group of townspeople. He has a hole in his head, but he is not dead.

The doctor does not believe his story about being unable to die, but the men cross paths a few times more over the years. Gavran's story of how he came to be unable to die is fascinating, and his interactions with the doctor are the most interesting parts of the novel.

Obreht weaves a magical tale, and the book soars during the fable-like stories of the Tiger's Wife and Gavran. Natalia's story, though she is presumably the protagonist of the novel, is really the least interesting, perhaps because it is rooted in reality.

One of my favorite passages in the book talks about war:
"When your fight has purpose- to free you from something to interfere on the behalf of an innocent- it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling- when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event- there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it."
What a very sad but profound statement, and many societies, including our own, have found that to be true at the cost of many innocent lives.

The Tiger's Wife is a unique novel, combining the real horrors of war with the fables of the Tiger's Wife and Gavran, the man who could not die. I'm sure I am not the only one who looks forward to Obreht's next work.

rating 4 of 5


  1. Thanks for sharing the link to your review, Diane. Like you, I appreciated the fable-like portions of the novel more than the contemporary storyline (Natalia's story). Obreht is a very talented (and very young!) writer.

  2. Beautiful prose, great characters, the constant pervasive feeling of magic and mystery, it's really a beautiful book. If you like this one, I would recommend Dalva, and Lord of Misrule. They have different prose styles, but the same feeling and great characters (and, coincidentally, the main character in each of these novels is a woman). Among my favorite novels, for sure, it was one of those that made me sad when it ended, only because it had ended.