WINNER OF THE ORANGE PRIZE FOR FICTION 2011!
The Tiger’s Wife is set in ‘Balkan country still scarred by war’ and tells the story of a young doctor, Natalia, who wants to discover the real reason for her grandfather’s mysterious departure from home days before his death. Natalia has reason to believe that her grandfather died searching for ‘the deathless man’, but why would a man of science pursue a mere myth?
As well as following Natalia’s struggle to understand her grandfather’s quest, Obreht weaves in folk tales and myths from the region. Two myths in particular represent a large portion of the books; the story of a tiger who escaped from a zoo during the bombing of Belgrade in World War 2, and who settled near the secluded mountain village where Natalia’s grandfather grew up; and the curious tale of the ‘deathless man’ and his various encounters with Natalia’s grandfather.
Obreht’s writing is magical – she does not get drawn into the politics and history of the war-torn setting of the Balkans but focuses instead on the human stories and tales which live on despite (or perhaps because of) the war. She has a clear talent for forming a character and describing the entirety of their life in a few pages – which she does, regularly, in order for the reader to see what the main characters cannot, and to enable the reader to understand and even sympathize with the more brutal characters in the book.
However, Téa’s talent for storytelling means that, in places, the book goes off on tangents and departs from the main story. The plot of The Tiger’s Wife is winding and varied, but the lack of focus can lead to confusion as to where the novel is taking you. Sections of the book are not always as smoothly connected as you would wish – the book takes you on a looping journey which is disruptive to the central plot. However, the clever links between past and present; between myth and reality, are ever present in the novel and prevent the story from veering too far off track.
The book deals with the complicated themes of the dangers and benefits of superstition and folk-lore, as well as the eternal struggle for man to come to terms with death. The dark background of war only serves to bring out the bright colours of the characters, although not much context is provided and the setting can be hard to understand if you, like me, have little historical understanding of the area.
All in all, The Tiger’s Wife is a spell-binding first novel which manages to bring together ancient myths and modern logic. The book is made rich with the superstitions and stories of a place, and is told with great love and understanding of the area: there can be no doubt that 24 year old Téa is an astonishingly accomplished storyteller.