Eliza's Reviews > The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
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's review
Dec 05, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: mike-fomp, novel, nba-finalists-2011
Read from November 13 to December 03, 2011

12/3/11: What is it about this novel that is so frustrating? Obreht writes beautifully; her characters and stories are compelling; and the novel has a certain charm (and not just because it was a finalist for the National Book Award). Certain scenes and images from the novel will stay with me: those about the deathless man, certainly, but also, for example, the image of Natalia's grandfather's copy of The Jungle Book, safely stashed in his coat pocket. Obreht has a knack for bringing what seem like minor details into focus and importance, filling out the vision for the reader. (This novel will be a great movie!)

But the novel was difficult for me to sink my teeth into. While this is partly her point--that the world she is describing is only half real, the rest being a poignant combination of legend, dream, and political upheaval--the dreamlike lack of cohesiveness is what finally sinks the larger story. The frame tale, of Natalia's and Zora's trip across the border (from one unnamed Balkan country to its neighbor) to vaccinate a group of orphans, is clumsy and unresolved; the transitions from the present, to Natalia's memories of her grandfather, to his stories, to local legend, are hard to follow. I kept having to stop in the middle of of yet another villager's backstory to remind myself who he was. Each story itself was wonderful--but how did he fit in to the larger story, and why did I care? I think a second reading would help, especially in helping me make the connections (which are there, I think, but oblique) among all the stories, and to see how these stories all work together in a larger context. But…that's probably not going to happen.

(Maybe I could have kept track of the multiple stories more easily had I read the novel all at once, on an airplane, for example. As it was, I never read more than 40 pages at once, so it was hard to become engaged, especially since so many stories and characters are introduced along the way.)

While the novel incorporates many historical allusions and references, Obreht never allows the actual history of the area to intrude on her created world. Perhaps, if I knew more about the region and its conflicts, cultural and religious differences, and ever-shifting borders, I might have derived more pleasure from the novel. And I understand that tying her novel to the actual situation would detract from its dreamlike quality. Still, this lack of touchstone, of explanation or context, made it frustrating. It was clear to me that I was an outsider, that without the historical and cultural context I was missing a lot of meaning. In some books, that is part of the point, but I don't get the sense that Obreht meant to do this, only that she couldn't manage both things at once (make it dreamlike and contextualize it). And I would have appreciated the chance to deepen my understanding of a real place and situation. As it is, that understanding remains vague at best.

I look forward to reading Obreht as she matures as a writer. While it's unfair to judge her novel negatively based on her age and experience--should it not stand on its own merits?--, I also feel that The Tiger's Wife was given extra credit because of its author's youth--what a prodigy we have, everyone seems to say! So it's hard to ignore her age and experience in judging the novel. Yes, she is a great writer…but she needs experience and wisdom and practice. And maybe a better editor?


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