The Tiger's Wife
By Tea Obreht
Random House March 2011
Yup, I read this book back in August. I wrote the review then too. I just couldn't shake the feeling that my thoughts weren't quite complete, that I had left something out, that I wasn't really getting across the things I meant to say. I'm still not completely satisfied with my review, but I am hopeful it will spur you to pick up a copy for yourself so you can see how maddeningly and wonderfully difficult this book is to discuss.
Best friends Natalia and Zora cross the border on a medical mission to help children. On their journey Natalia learns that her beloved grandfather has died, far from home, his illness unknown to everyone but her. When she learns that his possessions, including a beloved copy of The Jungle Book, have been left behind in the clinic where he died, she takes a detour to get them and learn more about the grandfather she loved so deeply.
As a child, Natalia’s grandfather regularly took her to the zoo to see the tiger. She discovers that he had a deep connection with the tiger because of a tiger he met as a boy and his love for the woman known as ‘the tiger’s wife.’ Natalia did not find that story until after his death, but her grandfather did tell her of a man he met several times throughout his life – a ‘deathless man.’ Did the deathless man have something to do with her grandfather’s death in a strange town, far from everyone and everything he loved?
It’s difficult to write about this book and as I skim other reviews, I see that other readers have had a similar problem. This novel reads like a fairytale, or perhaps several tales. It’s dark and heartbreaking and beautiful. I have to admit that I put this book down, read another and then came back to it. I had just read another heavy, dark novel and I was having trouble with two in a row. So I read this, came back to The Tiger’s Wife and sped through it. It reminded me a lot of the Fairy Tales of the Grimm Brothers.
Ms. Obreht writes beautiful characters, but sometimes spends a lot of book developing minor characters who never appear again. The relationship between Natalia and her grandfather is really lovely. “My backpack was on my knees, my grandfather’s belongings folded up inside. I wondered what they would look like without him: his watch, his wallet, his hat reduced by his absence to objects you could find at a flea market, in somebody’s attic.” I almost wished there could have been two books, so we could witness even more of the poignant moments between grandfather and granddaughter.
There is so much going on here that there could have been several different books. Obreht really captures the conflict of a generation who has only known war and the ways in which they are changed because of it. “We were seventeen, furious at everything because we didn’t know what else to do with the fact that the war was over. Years of fighting, and, before that, a lifetime on the cusp of it. Conflict we didn’t necessarily understand-conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinions on, seized as the reason for why we couldn’t go anywhere, do anything, be anyone – had been at the center of everything. It had forced us to make decisions based on circumstances that were now no longer a part of our daily lives, and we kept it close, a heavy birthright for which we were only too eager to pay.”
This book is beautiful and the intertwined stories are fascinating. Ms. Obreht has written an amazing novel for a first-time novelist and I look forward to seeing what she writes in the future. I still feel like I haven’t really done justice to this award-winning novel. I will say that if you haven’t read it yet; add it to your overflowing to-be-read pile. It’s a wonderful book.