The Tiger’s Wife (2011) by Tea Obreht
Stories and death are at the heart of this novel: stories of lives and stories of death, and how they intertwine and tangle. The Tiger’s Wife is a fable within a myth within a story; it leaps the border between folk tale and magic realism, and yet is somehow neither. Obreht draws on elements of traditional folk tales, such as the concept of Death as a person, spirits of good and bad luck, and anthropomorphism.
Natalia, a young doctor in the Balkans, begins the story with memories of her grandfather taking her to the zoo to visit the tiger. He always carries with him an old copy of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, which he reads to her in front of the tiger’s cage. Following his death Natalia recounts her grandfather’s life: the later years that she was present for, then his early childhood told through the story of the tiger’s wife, and his middle years told through the story of the deathless man. The stories twist and link, each engulfing the other in turns, and fused with stories of the lives of its major characters. The narrator intermittently returns to her present life and journey, in which she is discovering the truth of the stories she was told, while learning of the circumstances of her grandfather’s death.
Obreht’s settings are detailed, if a little overly-descriptive, depicting a European country of shifting borders and loyalties with a war per generation. Her characters are gritty and fantastical: a fabled bear hunter who really just loves taxidermy, a wistful folk-musician turned wife-batterer, an orphan who hides his name by becoming an apothecary, and at one point, a tiger. One chapter is told from the point of view of a tiger traversing a war zone and the animal’s attitude towards death – something to ignore or feast upon – is a stark contrast within the narrative and a thoughtful interlude from the emotional lives in turmoil around him.
Overall, Obreht’s novel is elegantly wrought, if a little clumsily written at points. Her characters are remarkable and engaging, but her description of setting and landscape is bulky and ill-fitting with the rest of the novel.