The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Random House, New York, 2011
Borrowed from my local library. This book, the first novel written by 25-year-old Obreht, who was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and moved to the United States at the age of twelve, won the 2011 Orange Prize. The reviews have been all over the map, everything from high praise to vitriolic ranting. I had not been following all the pre-publication hype, all I knew about it was that it included folk tales and folklore and that it took place during and after a war in an unnamed eastern European country. I put it on hold at the library and then it appeared on the Orange Prize long list.
At the root of this story is the relationship between Natalia, a young doctor traveling to clinic bringing medicine to sick children, and her Grandfather, a famous surgeon. He has died away from home, ostensibly following Natalia, and her Grandmother is shocked and angry because they had both covered up his illness.
The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death. That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and the windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river. The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past – the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else – and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back… From Page 7.
Natalia’s Grandmother gives her a task. Find the few things – the hat, the wallet, the watch – that her grandfather always had with him and that had not been returned home with his body. During her search for the place where he died, not found on any map, she remembers her life with him, the stories he told her, their trips to the local zoo to visit the tigers and the worn copy of the book he always carried in his coat pocket.
He read the alphabet book, that staple of childhood learning, the first philosophy we are exposed to – the simplicity of language, the articulation of a letter that sounds exactly how it looks. Then he read The Jungle Book, a gift from the apothecary himself. For weeks, my grandfather sat in the long-stemmed grass and poured over the brown volume with its soft pages. He read about the panther Bagheera, Baloo the bear, the old wolf Akela. Inside the cover was the picture of a boy, thin and upright, thrusting a stick of flame into the face of an enormous square-headed cat. From page 105.
And then there are her grandfather’s tales of the Deathless Man and of the Tiger’s Wife:
The tiger did not know that they were bombs. He did not know anything beyond the hiss and screech of the fighters passing overhead, missiles falling, the sounds of the bears bellowing in another part of the fortress, the sudden silence of the birds. There was smoke and terrible warmth, a gray sun rising and falling in what seemed like a matter of minutes, and the tiger, frenzied, dry-tongued, ran back and forth across the span of rusted bars, lowing like an ox. He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of the bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss or succumb to. He did not know what to do with it. His water had dried up and he rolled and rolled in the stone bed of his trough, in the uneaten bones in the corner of his cage, making the long sad sound that tigers make. From page 93.
There are multiple threads to this novel, something some readers had problems with. At times it all seems disconnected, arbitrary, like cut-out thoughts pulled from a hat. It came together for me as the shards and shrapnel of war, overshadowed by death and the devastated pieces of lives that have to be collected after a conflict tears a country and its people apart.
He had his hands inside the sleeves of his cassock, and then he said again that it had been very hard for his mother, and I wanted to say I knew, but I didn’t know. He could have said your paramilitary, but he didn’t. I kept waiting for him to say it, but he didn’t, and then I let him not say anything, and I didn’t say anything either, and then he told me, “It’s not much further now.” From page 270.
Using a contemporary, inter-generational story mixed with touches of magical realism, Tea Obreht’s novel tells of war as something that overwhelms, dividing people, driven by politics and quickly out of anyone’s control. Yet people somehow manage to get through it with indomitable spirit, like the Tiger. I really enjoyed it and look forward to more from this author.