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Review: ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ by Téa Obreht

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.

M.

If you want to find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or check out their facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize

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Review: ‘The Memory of Love’ by Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna’s novel is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone – in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history. Although the title focuses on love, the book is about so much more than that: betrayal, loss, longing and how a society crippled by the fear and trauma of war can never entirely move on.

The novel focuses on characters in the city’s hospital: Adrian – a British psychiatrist who goes to Sierra Leone to escape his life in the UK – becomes friends with Kai, a native surgeon who is unable to see beyond his past. A dying patient in the hospital, Elias Cole, feels the need to confess to Adrian the story of his love, and how it led him to commit acts which have haunted him since.

The Memory of Love shifts in time, from Elias’s account – which begins in 1969 – to Kai and Adrian’s modern day struggles. The parallels and links between the plots become only more obvious as the book goes on, to reveal an intricately planned and wonderfully crafted novel. The three are all connected with love – or the memory of – which has caused them just as much pain as the war.

The extraordinary circumstances which the three find themselves in lead each of them to commit terrible wrongs of betrayal, cowardice, envy and selfishness. At the heart of the novel is the terrible secret of war: the chilling fact that in brutal conditions it is not only evil individuals who carry out evil deeds. Forna’s characters are so well-drawn and authentic – so human – that you cannot help but identify with them. The ending, although tragic, is also uplifting, and you feel the characters’ loss as your own.

 In the end, however, it is the finer details of the novel that make it so powerful. There’s Agnes: the patient who, returning home after suffering in a refugee camp during the war, returns to discover that her daughter has married her husband’s killer.  Then there’s the male patient who becomes hysterical at the mere smell of roasting meat, due to the memories of burning flesh which return to him. It’s these smaller stories that really hit home the extent of the war, and its destructive impact on every person in the country.

The Memory of Love looks beyond the surface of civil war to observe the deeper consequence of a nation scarred with brutal memories. It is a moving novel which tackles the most unanswerable of questions: what leads us to do the things we do?

M.

To find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or visit their facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize

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Review: ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss

Great House is not so much one novel but four: split between past and present, its five narrators each tell their story. Although the blurb states that it is ‘a desk of many drawers’ which connects these tales, the narrations are bound more tightly by questions of heredity, roots and loss.

The novel starts with Nadia, who for 25 years has written at the desk which was left in her flat by a young Chilean poet who disappeared into the hands of Pinochet’s secret police. Then there is Lotte Berg, a generation older but also a writer who worked at the desk for many years. Lotte’s story is told by her husband, who has found out his wife’s darkest secret only after her death, and is haunted by what the desk represents. The Weisz family feature too: George Weisz – the commanding father of Leah and Yoav – devotes his life to finding the desk, which belonged to his father. For Leah and Yoav, the desk represents their continual struggle with their father and his obsession with the past. Their tale is told by Isabelle; Yaov’s lover and outsider to the Weisz family.

The only story with no link to the desk is Aaron’s – the story of an old Israeli who, coming to the end of his life, has to face up to the void between him and one of his adult sons, who he has never been able to relate to. This, for me, is the most resonant story: Aaron’s resentment, anger and unexpressed love for his son make for a thrilling narration.

“We search for patterns, you see, only to find where the patterns break. And it’s there, in that fissure, that we pitch out tents and wait”

The novel can be confusing – the sudden changes of character and setting (the book straddles four cities: London, Oxford, New York and Jerusalem) do disrupt the flow of the book, and the links between the stories can seem tenuous. But the disjointed tales are all connected one way or another, and in the end the links are almost irrelevant: Krauss is challenging the reader to overcome the lack of structure, to step back and to see the big picture – the Great House.

Despite this, the beauty of the book is not in the larger picture but in the detail of the narrations: Krauss’s skill as a writer is undeniable. Her characters are made human by their pride, lack of faith and inability to identify with each other. The novel can be hard to piece together when you’re reading it (even after reading it I feel like it needs a second going through to identify all of the smaller links) but it is so rewarding to piece together. It is a novel I know I will not forget.

M.

To find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or check out their facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize

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Review: ‘Grace Williams Says it Loud’ by Emma Henderson

A debut novel, Grace Williams Says it Loud is another novel on the Orange Prize shortlist. It tells Grace’s story – the story of a “spastic” and “mental defective” who is sent to a mental institute at the age of eleven. Set in the 1950s onwards, the novel explores the stigma attached to disability at the time, and now.

The novel focuses particularly on Grace’s relationship with Daniel, an epileptic who she meets at the Briar. They are both friends and lovers – Daniel is the one person who treats Grace with love and care. Essentially the novel is the story of Grace and Daniel’s love: love against the odds.

Grace narrates the story; her voice is poetic and assured but at the same time very detached and matter of fact. The removed tone Grace uses can seem at odds with the brutality of some of the scenes, sometimes detracting from the potency of some of the sadder and more shocking events. In places, the tone of the novel seems downright wrong: Grace reports violence and sexual abuse in a disconnected and even inappropriate way which makes it hard to be affected by her voice.  The novel can be jarring – the contrast between how the reader gets to know Grace (from inside her head) and how others view Grace is claustrophobic.

However, one incident in the book touched me deeply – when Grace is taken by her parents to visit the house of  a cellist in order to buy a cello for her younger sister. The man who sells them the instrument has a ‘different’ daughter, too, and although Grace’s parents fail to understand and appreciate their daughter, this man knows how to approach Grace. It was only here, when Grace was treated as a valued individual by someone other than Daniel, that I was struck by the tragedy of Grace’s situation.

Since I’ve finished the book, I’ve come to appreciate its beauty and pertinence. But I can’t help thinking that Emma Henderson’s attempt to voice the thoughts of a disabled person fails to bridge the gap between normality and disability: Grace remains distant and hard to relate to for most of the novel.

M.

If you want to find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or check out their facebook page http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize

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