The 2011 winner of the Women’s Prize, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, was my most recent buddy read. Reactions to it have been quite mixed (both in the buddy read and in general), so definitely check out more reviews if it’s a title that interest you. (I’ll add the reviews from my reading buddies for this title here as they appear: Callum, Naty, Rachel…)
In the novel, Natalia and her friend, both doctors in the Balkans, are traveling to an orphanage across the border of their country to deliver medicine to children on the other side. Still trying to reconcile her feelings over the newly divided country and the aftermath of war, Natalia also learns that her grandfather, a beloved mentor and revered member of the community- has died, supposedly on his way to visit her. While she helps distribute the medicine and tries to persuade the travelers in town (who are digging for a body left behind 12 years ago) to allow their children to be treated as well, she must now also attempt to retrieve her grandfather’s things from the morgue. Interwoven with this series of events, she also recounts two stories she’s heard about her grandfather’s past, both involving death, and both featuring a bit of magic.
“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life […] One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.”
Unfortunately, at a little over 300 pages The Tiger’s Wife somehow felt excessively long and drawn-out to me- probably because despite including plenty of individual moments that I adored, several larger aspects were ineffective for me. My reading experience was filled with pros and cons, landing me somewhere in the middle of the wide range of opinions surrounding this book.
At heart, The Tiger’s Wife is a story of superstition and belief, of what people tell themselves to cope with what is happening to or around them. Both of the stories from Natalia’s grandfather’s past include a magical realism element that may or may not be taken at face value, a choice that allows the reader to see how these characters might have accepted such outlandish stories to begin with. Though I’m not always a fan of magical realism, I thoroughly enjoyed those elements in this novel. I thought the magical chapters were the most engaging to read, and they gave me something deeper to think about than the surface details of the story. But after so much attention is given to these magical tales throughout the book, the payoff for them seems too rushed and insufficient for them to warrant so much page time. Pro, meet con.
The two largest pieces that didn’t work for me were 1) the structure, and 2) the narrator, who provides the framework for the story.
The book alternates between three story lines: that of the Deathless Man, that of the Tiger’s Wife, and that of the narrator’s experience with the orphanage. The relationship between Natalia and her grandfather is also explored piecemeal through historical anecdotes sprinkled throughout, which touch on the political conflict in the Balkans from the time of the world wars onward. Though the stories (historical, political, personal, magical) do tie together at the end, I found the constant switching between such disparate narratives to be disorienting, and not conducive to compulsive reading. Even within each chapter, our narrator jumps through time to explore not only the narratives themselves, but also the histories of each of the main players. Though each chapter eventually drew me in with one plot point or another, having to switch back to another story line in the next chapter, and then not necessarily from the point at which the last relevant chapter left off, made it easy to set the novel down at every break and harder to pick back up. Every chapter takes patience and an effort to adjust.
Additionally, and also damaging to my reading experience, I thought the narrator felt like an unnecessary addendum to the story. Until her trek up the mountain on the heels of a mysterious figure (at the very end of the book), she contributes very little- no personality, no opinions, no actions beyond what is necessary to move the plot along. Primarily, I felt The Tiger’s Wife to be the grandfather’s story, and including a granddaughter at all seemed only a convenient way to frame the story after his death, since death is so crucial to the two biggest stories of his life. Even from a logistical standpoint though, it seems an awkward narrative choice; only one of these two major stories is actually given to Natalia by her grandfather, the other she must collect from various sources while visiting the village of his youth, and she does this several years after her trip to the orphanage; this means that the entire narrative is actually told from a futuristic viewpoint, when the narrator finally holds all of the stories together, though I found no further insight or reflection as usually accompanies a story told retrospectively. The events surrounding the orphanage visit seem like they’ve happened just yesterday, just a moment ago, not from some future point of clarity. Even setting the strange timing aside, Natalia doesn’t express much emotion about any of the book’s events, which makes her feel like a third party in someone else’s show rather than an active participant in her own. Ultimately, I just didn’t find her voice useful or engaging.
“Slightly younger, we had been unable to ration our enthusiasm for living under the yoke of war; now, we couldn’t regulate our inability to part with it.”
And now that I’ve complained my way through several paragraphs, it’s time for the upside: the writing. I suppose opinions will be divided on this as well, but I loved Obreht’s style in this book. The prose is sumptuous and evocative, full of imagery and deep characterization (aside from Natalia). The details didn’t all feel necessary, as I’ve outlined above, and in the end the story didn’t quite pull together as strongly as I’d been hoping it would, but something about the writing of this book felt so promising, so hopeful, that even when I found myself disappointed in other aspects, I wouldn’t have considered giving up on the book. She’s clearly a talented writer, and The Tiger’s Wife is all the more impressive for the fact that it’s Obreht’s debut. It examines timeless and fascinating concepts: grief, death, political upheaval, superstition- and ties them all to a specific time and place. For the right reader, I imagine this book can be a great success. A reader more interested in historical fiction, magical realism, and beautiful prose, with a clearer picture of the Balkans’ political history. Sadly, that didn’t quite seem to be me.
” ‘People become very upset,’ Gavo tells me, ‘when they find out they are going to die. […] They behave very strangely,’ he says. ‘They are suddenly filled with life. Suddenly they want to fight for things, ask questions. They want to throw hot water in your face, or beat you senseless with an umbrella, or hit you in the head with a rock. Suddenly they remember things they have to do, people they have forgotten. All that refusal, all that resistance. Such a luxury.’ “
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think this has been my least favorite of the Women’s Prize winners I’ve read thus far, though I don’t regret the read. I’m certainly not discouraged from trying more titles from the list of Women’s Prize winners, and I might still pick up Obreht’s 2019 release, Inland, at some point as well, though I would appreciate anyone who’s read it (or read both, preferably) weighing in on whether I might get along with it any better?
The Literary Elephant