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Monday, May 16, 2011

Téa Obreht: The Tiger's Wife

Author: Téa Obreht
Title: The Tiger's Wife (Magical Realism, Myth)
Ratings: V3; S3; H2
Publisher: Random House (2011) 

     In The Tiger's Wife, Obreht uses myth-making, allegory, and a touch of magical realism as she tells us a fantastical fairy tale of a story. The story frame is set around the first-person narrator, Natalia Stefanovic, a young woman who is mourning the loss of her beloved grandfather, a prominent doctor who has always played an important part in her life. Natalia's story takes place over just a few days, but when she reminisces about her grandfather and his stories, she goes half a century back in time to her grandfather's childhood in an isolated village at the edge of a deep forest.  At the center of the story is the heartbreak of a once-united, unnamed country, shattered by various invasions and internal wars and now divided into two still-belligerent halves. Obviously, this is based on the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia, but Obreht doesn't tell stories of the wars, she tells stories of the people. She puts wartime in context through stories of the everyday superstition, intrigue, and violence in the lives of people who must fabricate their own reasons for the tragedies and uncertainties in their lives, sometimes making dubious connections and stitching together sinisterand bizarrenotions.

     As the story begins, Natalia and her best friend, Zóra, both doctors, cross the new border to a seaside orphanage to bring medicines to the children. On the way, Natalia learns of her grandfather's death. She has known that he was very ill, but the two of them had kept it secret from the rest of the family. Natalia's grandmother is upset that her grandfather's personal possessions did not arrive with his body. In this culture, when a person dies, everything that person was familiar with must remain exactly the same for the forty days of the soul, when the dead person's spirit will "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."

     Natalia is determined to regain her grandfather's possessions, particularly his worn copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which he has carried with him since his childhood. She (and we) wonder about the book; why was it so important to him? When Natalia and Zora arrive at the village, they learn of a strange group of people who are digging for a body in the vineyards, a relative who was buried without the proper rites and whose improper burial has cursed his surviving family members with serious illnesses. Natalia wants to scorn their efforts, but how can she, when she herself is on a mission to save her grandfather's forty days by finding his lost possessions.

     As Natalia grieves for her grandfather, she recalls their frequent trips to the zoo, particularly their visits to the tigers' cages. She remembers the girl in her grandfather's village who was known as the tiger's wife, and she goes to to tell the story of a tiger that escaped from the city zoo during the bombing of World War II and made its way to her grandfather's village when he was about 10  years old. This tiger had a profound effect on the villagers and on her granfather himself.

     Natalia also remembers her grandfather's stories about the deathless man, an ageless wanderer who has appeared in her grandfather's life several times and who always knows exactly who will die soon. Here's where the magical realism comes in. Although the deathless man should have aged like her grandfather did, he always appears to be in his 30s. Natalia says, "Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories, 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.” And so they do.

     Natalia at first believes that these are just fantastical storiespure fiction, but she eventually learns that they are based on real events and real people. Obreht gathers together all of these threads and weaves a magical story that you don't want to end. Natalia tells her own story in a matter-of-fact manner, but when she folds in the folktales of her grandfather, her narration has the simple charm, straightforwardness, and brutality of fables or fairy talesas good as even Kipling could write.

     I know, I knowthis is not paranormal fiction, but I recommend it highly. It's a can't-put-it-down book, with a complex plot that is presented in such an orderly and enchanting manner that all of the events and people soon become clear and connected. Obreht creates living, breathing characters with whom you feel you could sit down and have a conversation, one in which you just sat back and let them tell their own stories.

     Twenty-six-year-old Obreht has been named to the New Yorker's "Twenty Under Forty" list of the best young American fiction writers and to the National Book Foundation's list of "5 Under 35." She was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and has lived in the U.S. since she was twelve. Click HERE to go to an LA Times interview with Obreht.

1 comment:

  1. The link on the author page goes to the main blog page; I had to use google search to locate it.

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