Lions and tigers and bears… and war and legends.
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Orion)
First Published: 1st January 2010
Date Reviewed: 19th June 2015
Natalia is off to vaccinate children at risk. In a country torn literally apart by war, help is needed. As she and her friend get to grips with their location, she muses on her grandfather, his life, and the tales he told her.
The Tiger’s Wife is a many-layered book. Good but with vague purpose, it is enjoyable but decidedly average.
The main problem where lack of success is concerned is the way Obreht chooses to write her story. The natural choice of main character was the grandfather but instead Obreht opts to tell the story through his granddaughter. It shows – Natalia is severely underdeveloped. There is no reason to care about her, nor anyone else. Everyone is forgettable.
This way of telling a story, through someone else, may work at times – Lockwood and Nelly in Wuthering Heights are fine, as is Wells’ time traveller speaking of the past – but in those cases there is a basic disconnect, a sub-textual acknowledgement that the narrator is just a device. In The Tiger’s Wife, whilst Obreht may see Natalia as a storyteller, she also includes enough about the woman herself to suggest she wants us to relate to her, to warrant detailing her life. Granted, Natalia is a device through which Obreht also teaches us about the Yugoslav wars and life at the time, likely chosen to bring about a similar affect as a memoir might have, but it doesn’t quite work.
The other problem is more opinion – some readers may find the book too vague. You are left to work out Obreht’s point by yourself; Obreht actually says near the end that she isn’t going to tell you what it was about. The problem is, it can feel like you’re grasping at straws. Suffice to say it could be argued the book was written to fill gaps, to provide a taste, to be beautiful.
And it is beautiful. Obreht’s writing is stunning. There are too many details but the style, structure, words, linger in your mind. It’s typical to describe a good début as not being like a début – this is an apt description of The Tiger’s Wife.
The social and political information is telling. Obreht leaves no stone unturned – she wants to inform readers about the division of Yugoslavia and that’s what she does. She weaves in diversity, showing the different cultures and how to some people the difference mattered, how to others it did not. She is incredibly candid about the way children can be, adults can be, when they are on the cusp of something big but not quite there – the way war can be appropriated to satisfy selfish and bad behaviour.
Those first sixteen months of wartime held almost no reality, and this made them incredible, irresistible, because the fact that something terrible was happening elsewhere, and at the same time to us, gave us room to get away with anarchy. Never mind that, three hundred miles away, girls sitting in bomb shelters were getting their periods at the age of seven. In the City, we weren’t just affected by the war, we were entitled to our affection. When your parents said get your ass to school, it was all right to say, there’s a war on, and go down to the riverbank instead. When they caught you sneaking into the house at three in the morning, your hair reeking of smoke, the fact that there was a war on prevented them from staving your head in. When they heard from neighbors that your friends had been spotted doing a hundred and twenty on the Boulevard with you hanging none too elegantly out the sunroof, they couldn’t argue with there’s a war on, we might all die anyway They felt responsible, and we all took advantage of their guilt because we didn’t know any better.
Obreht explains without trying to apologise, she explains to show what division, what war, can do, how it can change people.
The book is heavily influenced by folklore and The Jungle Book – Kipling’s original rather than Disney’s adaptation. Through these she explores social and cultural problems, domestic violence, the way people will see what they want to see, take from a situation only what aligns with their thoughts. This folklore is where the magical realism comes into play, the story of a man who cannot die and the titular story of a woman who befriends a tiger, scandalising a village that cannot understand it.
This is a book best read away from food. Natalia is a doctor and Obreht describes training in detail. She also has a fascination with the physical affects of sinus problems which are relayed without notice and may put you off your lunch.
The Tiger’s Wife is far from bad but there is an air of ‘written for acclaim’ about it, which was of course realised when it won the Orange Prize. It can teach you a lot but it’s not particularly well-paced and keeps its secrets beyond the last page.
Read it if you will but don’t put it above others on your list.
June 22, 2015, 2:28 pm
Natalia as narrator worked for me–I liked finding out about things that had happened before my time–and hers–as if they mattered to someone.
Perhaps the book was written with disaffected Americans in mind?
June 22, 2015, 2:43 pm
It’s quite some while since I read this, so the only thing I really remember is that it didn’t grab me. I just think it failed to live up to its hype.
June 22, 2015, 11:43 pm
I love your phrase “written for acclaim.” That’s such a good description of a certain kind of book. I think I’m going to adopt it as a replacement for “literary fiction.”
July 20, 2015, 1:58 pm
Jeanne: That’s a good point about it being before her time but mattering. Perhaps it was; I’m not sure – I know the author lives in America, though, so it’s possible.
Maryom: Yes; that’s it in one. Nice, but certainly didn’t grab me either. What it might have been without the hype is an interesting question.
Jenny: That would be quite a bold adoptation! The phrase does fit, somewhat unfortunately, for some books, though luckily not too many.