So much has been written about the precociousness of 25-year-old Téa Obreht, the author of
The Tiger’s Wife
, one could not help but be curious to see/hear the work she had produced. I listened to the audio, beautifully performed by Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs. Obreht has created an old, deeply carved, overstuffed wooden box of delights with this novel. As she slowly opens it for us, we expect perhaps to hear tinkling music but instead with are struck with the slightly pungent smell of time gone by, dried herbs, and something musky and mysterious and animal. Obreht has stories upon stories within stories…she mines a deep, rich folklore and an oral history passed between family members and among townspeople. In this tradition, everything becomes a story to be embellished and told at length—going nowhere in particular—leaving one hanging on the central mystery of it all. We listen as though to a ghost story, doom and foreboding swirling through the telling. We never know what daily event will trigger a long, circuitous explanation that will bring us to recall the local village’s history with strange characters and remarkable beasts.
In an interview
, Téa Obreht explained she moved frequently as a child, making friends and leaving them, spending a lot of time alone thinking about herself, her life, her family, and her history, almost to the point of unsociability. But it gave her the time to watch and notice and create sentences which describe the nighttime rise and fall in cadence of a field of locust: “the sound of the cicadas comes in waves,” starting slow and rising high, crashing to a deafening silence, only to rise again a minute later.
But who was the Tiger’s Wife? We know she was a deaf mute who died a cruel and needless death, as many did these past years in the Balkans, distrusted by neighbors and sabotaged by family. Was she a symbol of unruly passion and wild nature that is essentially good but misunderstood? She lived many years side by side with husband and neighbors with no ill effects, but fear conquered rational thought in most folks—that dark folklore again—which led townspeople to ostracize her. The startling and unforgettable description of her hissing at someone, her nose wrinkled and flat to her face, was as clear as a drawing on a page: With her whole body shaking, “she hissed and her teeth flashed out, and the ridge of her nose folded up against her eyes.” The sound, the only sound he had ever heard her make, left him quaking. The first sound she’d ever made was not human. I found myself happy to leave that darkly suspicious town, so used to indignities and pain that they would thoughtlessly inflict the same on anyone who threatened their unstable peace and burdened lives.
We never learn what happens to the Deathless Man…one is always expecting him to show up again in a later incarnation, asking for water. Even Natalia urgently questions the last people to notice her grandfather before he died, asking them if he was seen speaking with a man that fits the description of Gavo, the Deathless Man. But we learn the fate of the animals from the zoo, we learn of the lives of desperation lived by city folks bearing daily shelling, we learn of the reversion to storytelling and folklore when rational explanations no longer make any sense at all.