TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez's Reviews > The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
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May 26, 2011

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bookshelves: contemporary-authors, eastern-european-literature, literary-fiction, folktales
Read in March, 2011

Civil war in the Balkans has left that region bereft and in need. It is in this fascinating region that Téa Obreht sets her elegantly written debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife.

While the protagonist of The Tiger’s Wife is Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor who has returned to her homeland to help the villagers, the central mystery of the book revolves around Natalia’s beloved grandfather as Natalia seeks to reconstruct his final days and his death in a village named Zdrevkov, far from his home.

Although Natalia’s search for the rhyme and reason behind her grandfather’s actions seems pretty straightforward, Obreht twines two folktales/legends around the central story, and in their telling writes a “story about stories.” And, even though Natalia is the protagonist of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s her wise, sweet grandfather who takes center stage, or at least he should.

Natalia’s grandfather lives in the City, a city that can only be Belgrade, but this is a book of fiction, and I really didn’t care if Obreht named the city or not. In fact, just calling it “the City” was more in keeping with the folktales and myths that make up a great part of this book. Natalia’s grandfather, who is also a physician, is also inordinately fond of animals, especially tigers. When Natalia was a child, he often took her to visit the zoo and carried a tattered and torn copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book with him everywhere. He is never without it. It is from her grandfather that Natalia, who seems to be a stand-in for the author, has come to love tigers, herself. When she learns of her beloved grandfather’s death, she’s at a pay phone in a gas station at the border of an Eastern European country, which she and her best friend, Zora, are about to enter in order to deliver vaccines to an orphanage sorely in need. Although her grandmother begs her to abandon her journey to the orphanage and come directly home, Natalia continues on, determined, not only to bring back her grandfather’s possessions, which are secured in a blue pouch Natalia must not, under any conditions, open, but also to discover why the grandfather she thought she knew so well went off to die alone.

During the war, Natalia’s grandfather tried his best to pretend that nothing had changed even though doctors over fifty years of age, like himself, were suspected of “loyalist feelings toward the unified state” and thus suspended from the practice of medicine. Natalia’s grandfather defied the law, and he continued to see patients in secret. However, what disrupted his life more than his inability to practice medicine was the closing of the city zoo. After the government closes the zoo, Natalia’s grandfather can no longer indulge in his favorite weekly routing of visiting the tigers.

One of the folktales that twines around the main storyline is one Natalia’s grandfather told her and revolves around the “deathless man,” Gavran Gailé, the nephew of Death, who defied and cheated Death by sparing a lover's life. Condemned forever, Gailé must spend eternity scouring the earth and gathering in souls. For that reason, he travels with wars and epidemics, and has been cursed with agelessness, something many people think they would enjoy. Gailé, however, is quick to set the record straight. “Dying is not punishment,” he tells the grandfather. “The dead are loved. They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.”

The other folktale is really a fable and takes place during World War II in the very village where Natalia’s grandfather grew up. After the Germans bombed the City in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo and took refuge in the mountains above the grandfather’s village. Almost everyone feared the tiger greatly, as well they should. All, that is, but the deaf-mute wife of the abusive local butcher, who has mysteriously disappeared. The townspeople believed his wife might have killed him, and they also believed this same wife fed and cared for the tiger. Because of this, they began calling her “the tiger’s wife.” The other person who loved and revered the tiger was a small boy, a small boy who would grow up to be Natalia’s grandfather.

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” Naralia says, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life — of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University.

I believed Natalia, but understanding her grandfather proved to be no easy task for this reader as the two folktales really tell us very little about the boy/man who was Natalia’s grandfather. Even after reading the two folktales, I still didn’t quite understand why Natalia’s grandfather loved tigers so, or why he always carried a copy of The Jungle Book in his pocket. But, I really wanted to understand. Natalia may be our protagonist in this book, but her grandfather is the book’s very heart and soul.

If the book seems to be obsessed with death and with how people come to terms with death, it is. It is also about the responsibilities the living owe the dead, and what has the power to live on, if not individually, then in the collective imagination.

As Natalia and Zora continue with their medical mission to the orphanage, they come into contact with a family who is searching for the body of a hastily buried relative, one buried in a vineyard during the war, and one the family has now come to retrieve. The man’s displacement is literally making the children of the family sick. The family wants to rebury the man, so that they, and he, have peace. Obreht’s words will cause some readers to shiver as Natalia and the others locate the dead man’s bones and begin to wash them. Obreht writes:

...the cracked dome of the skull, wiping down the empty sockets and the crooked lines between the teeth. Then they were breaking the thighbones, sawing through them with a cleaver so that the body could not walk in death to bring sickness to the living....

It is Natalia, however, the non-believer, who buries the man’s heart at a crossroads, thus releasing at last the soul of the dead man and bringing peace to both him and his family.

Despite all the myth and folktale, to Obreht’s credit, she never loses sight of the more mundane world in which her characters live their everyday lives:

Green shutters, a greenish flower...a stone canal ran up past the campground. Boxes in the windows, here and there a garage with a tarped car and maybe some chickens huddled on the hood. There were wheelbarrows full patching bricks or cement or manure…of laundry lines hung from house to house, heavy with sheets and headless shirts, pegged rows of socks. A soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly, tied to a tree in someone's front yard.

I liked the rather gloomy premise of this novel, I loved Obreht’s gorgeous writing, and even though I’m not a fan of myths, folktales, or fairy tales, I did like the three story strands (Natalia, the “tiger’s wife” and the “deathless man”) that make up this book. I loved the sense of place the author managed to evoke. I really felt like I was in the Balkans while reading this beautiful book. Still, I felt the book had some problems.

I suppose what bothered me most about The Tiger’s Wife was the fact the Natalia’s grandfather remained little more than a cipher in the book, yet, for me at least, he was the character around whom everything else revolved. Both Natalia and her grandfather seemed, in the end, to be little more than vehicles through which to tell the story of the “tiger’s wife” and the story of the “deathless man.” Those two folk stories are wonderful stories, pulsing with dark life, but it’s the grandfather who anchors the book; it’s the grandfather I wanted to know more about; it’s the grandfather we learn so little about.

Yes, I realize that we turn to stories and folktales and fables in times of crises “to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening,” but I wanted to understand what was happening to Natalia and most especially, to Natalia’s grandfather. For me, Obreht didn’t use the two folktales to “stitch together” the life of the fascinating character that was Natalia’s grandfather. Maybe Obreht is telling us that she believes that even those we love the most remain unknowable. I’m not sure. I just felt it was wrong to set us up for something and then leave us hanging, for we never learn why Natalia’s grandfather has such love and passion for tigers just as we never learn why he clings to his old, battered copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Not getting to know the grandfather left me feeling I’d read a gorgeously written book, but one whose emotional center was missing.

In The Tiger’s Wife, sadly, the parts are greater than the whole. The three story strands never come together to form one beautiful, and emotionally moving, story. In the end, they remain three disparate story strands. They leave the reader with the sense of having read something beautiful, but also something rather pointless.

The book also loses momentum, even before we reach mid-point. I didn’t feel this was because the author was juggling three separate story strands – she seems to juggle separate story strands without trouble – but because the two folktales never seem to mesh well enough with the story of Natalia and her grandfather.

It’s Natalia’s grandfather, himself, who tells us, after he and his granddaughter have just witnessed an elephant wandering the streets of the City, that moments are meant to be cherished, that:

You have to think carefully about where you tell it and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?

Maybe, I wondered, Obreht felt that her readers were not worthy of hearing Natalia’s grandfather’s story in full. Maybe she felt we were only worthy of knowing Natalia’s grandfather obliquely, though the stories of the “tiger’s wife” and the “deathless man.” If that’s the case, then I feel bad, not for me, but for Natalia’s grandfather, for he seemed to be a man whose spirit was generous to a fault, a man who would want his story to be told and to live on.

And that is the big failing of this book. Obreht is, in many ways, a marvelous writer, even a luminous one. But in the end, people are interested in people. Though the folktales were interesting, without the character of the grandfather, they ring hollow. While the grandfather remained in the background, and the folktales took center stage, it should have been the other way around. Yes, The Tiger’s Wife is filled with beautiful writing, and it is “art,” but this reader wanted a little less art and a lot more humanity.


Recommended: The book gives us a beautiful sense of place, and at times, the prose is so good it’s luminous. The book is definitely “arty,” but I wanted a little less art and a lot more humanity. The three stars are for the beautiful evocation of place and atmosphere, and for the lovely writing. Sadly, the story told, as is, is only worth one star to me. You may be different, but I needed more of the grandfather. I do feel Obreht has a very bright future, and I’m looking forward to more from her. It’s rare to find such sophisticated writing in one still so young.

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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Carl Well put. I was trying to think what I'd say (briefly) about this book, which I'd also give 3/5. Maybe I'll just refer to you...."Yeah, what she said."

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez Thank you, Carl. I thought the writing was lovely enough, but I didn't really enjoy the story. Glad someone else thinks the same.

Amanda Enjoyed your analysis, though I felt like the 3 stories were pulled together in a moving, subtle way in the end. (Spoiler) If not for Gavran's falling in love, Luka wouldn't have returned to the village with the tiger's wife. And, Natalia's finding only the single plate from the book, along with course bristles of tiger's fur, indicates that the tiger existed.. and that the grandfather did indeed pay up on his bet with Gavran.

Michele I just finished this book. I agree with you that the prose is "luminous." I actually loved the way she told the story. Myths and legends are constantly evolving, so it made sense to me that there was not "full resolution" WRT to Luka and the Tiger.I did think that the plethora of details that had be tracked for the book to make sense subtracted somewhat from my enjoyment of it. For this, I subtracted one star.

Have you read any books by David Mitchell? Beautiful prose and so intelligent.

Lisa This a great review.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez Thank you for the comments, Carl, Amanda, Michele, and Lisa, and thank you for the insight Amanda and Michele. Michele, I have read David Mithchell's Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I think he's a terrific writer, and as you said, a very intelligent one.

Pearl Great review. I agree with all of your points except I didn't think the grandfather was a cipher. Not at all.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez Thank you, Pearl. Yes, I do think you're right and I'm wrong, looking back.

Pearl I just re-read your review. What I wish I'd been able to think of myself about the book is "the parts are greater than the whole." That, for me, sums up the book perfectly. Good job!

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez Thank you, Pearl.

Kelly Boone Spot on! I agree with every sentence you wrote. Thx!

Renata Your review is so well thought out, so passionately reasoned that it sounds like you cared for it more than you might think. But I entirely agree with you...I loved so much about it, and yet the overall feeling is one that something did not quite work. Perhaps that is part of the novel - our nostalgia for the past, our inability to truly comprehend and appreciate the stories of our ancestors and our struggle to come to terms with the present. Making sense of the whole leaves big holes.

message 13: by Erin (new) - added it

Erin Gilbride Now I finally understand this book.

Anjeza Very beautiful review it helped me tremendously in the understanding of this book a little more...and you did a wonderful job in breaking it down for thank you...I have still 10 pgs of this book and yet I can't seem to pick it back up because all the things u mentioned in ur review, and above all that they stories didn't intertwined as we all would have wanted...but I guess the author also did that for a display that things in real life don't get to be all ties together in a pretty little bow...but at the same time I as a reader wanted to read more about the humanity of the stories....

As to answer your question about the grandfather, and why he had such a connection to the tiger and the book is that at the time of war and there was nothing to look forward he gets this interesting book from the "medicine man" in the village...and that excitement of getting the book and then actually hearing about a tiger, at such a sad time such as war...probably just blossomed the love for tigers, helping people (like the medicine man did) and a passion to restore balance and rutine when the grandfather was an adult...cuz he didn't have that growing up...such as not having his parents around and war and destruction all around he knew that the tiger always came back and was a constant in his childhood and adult life where he can always visit at the zoo....
At least thats my understanding of this story

Charles Your review is spot on. I hate reading a book and, really, not have an inkling of the big picture... oh, sure, many stories and tales and mysticism and things like that. But the bouncing of characters and times and stories and the lack of denouement were, ultimately, exhausting.

Virginia Baich Thank you for your in depth review. It gave clarity to some of the more mystifying aspects of the book; and I agree with you about the role of the grandfather. He seemed to be the pivotal figure, but yet remained a mystery to us.

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