Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2011, making her the youngest author to win the award, given to the best English-language novel written by a female author in the preceding year. It’s an unusually thoughtful book for an author of 25, reflecting Obreht’s upbringing in the former Yugoslavia until age 7, when her family moved to Cyprus to flee the war, eventually settling in the United States. The book employs magical realism and obvious yet strong symbolism to cover the tragedy of her native country’s brutal sectarian civil war, although the story was surprisingly antiseptic for such an awful, emotionally-charged subject.
Obreht’s protagonist/narrator is Natalia, a young doctor who has recently lost her grandfather, to whom she was extremely close as a child and who often told her stories of his encounters with “the deathless man,” a man who could not die and claimed to be an agent or acolyte of Death itself; and of the tiger’s “wife,” a deaf-mute woman who befriends a tiger that escaped from a local zoo and lives in the woods outside of the town where the woman lives with her abusive husband. The deathless man draws from just about every major work of magical realism you can think of, as well as more overtly spiritual works like The Alchemist, and as a result is the less interesting of the two major subplots. I understand his relevance in a country repeatedly torn apart by wars, both civil and continental, where death becomes an ordinary part of life, and could see his value as a symbol of something that cannot die or be killed (national pride, family, love) even when death is everywhere.
The fable, presented as fact, of the tiger and the woman known in her village as the tiger’s wife is more complex and more compelling, even though it starts with one of the worst cliches and ends in hatred and intolerance. The tiger is the outsider, escaped from a zoo elsewhere in the country, scraping out an existence on the periphery of this village, apparently aided by the deaf-mute wife of the abusive butcher (the cliche, right down to his back story). Her unknown relationship with the tiger, especially after her husband’s disappearance, becomes the subject of gossip in the town, fueled by fear, ignorance, superstition, and hate. Here lies the book’s greatest strength - where Obreht could have beaten the reader over the head with “bigotry is … bad!” commentary, she allows the story itself to make those points subtly, further softened by the use of a non-human character who appears more often in conversation than in the flesh.
Natalia herself, however, is surprisingly bland, more of an outside observer in the mold of Nick Jenkins without the latter’s wry observational humor. Her relationship with her grandparents is sweet, but draws little sentiment from the reader because so much focus is on the two secondary stories. Her own relationship with her friend Zora, another doctor with whom Natalia visits an orphanage to deliver vaccinations, is an afterthought, as is the story of the band of gypsies tearing up a local field to find the remains of a cousin buried there during the country’s civil war twelve years earlier. It’s rare that I write that a book could have been longer, but Obreht cut herself off too soon and could have tried to tie the four main plot strands together more fully.
Ultimately Obreht’s book reminds me of the two novels by Khaled Hosseini, both strongly symbolic novels that attempt to tell a specific country’s tragic history through smaller narratives, yet both books I enjoyed reading more than I enjoyed pondering after reading them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading for pleasure, but for whatever reason, I prefer novels that stick with me more after I’m done.
Next up: I finally went back and finished Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which was borderline unreadable, and am about to begin Lush Life, by The Wire writer Richard Price.