Books, Documentaries, Reviews: THE TIGER’S WIFE, Tea Obreht

Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  December 19, 2013

The Tiger’s Wife

Tea Obreht

I’ve read it twice now.

And loved it both times.

I read it first last year, after which I recommended it for our Book Club.

And I just finished it for the second time and found this second reading was even more enjoyable as I picked up on details and connections I had not seen as sharply as I did with the first reading.


The novel begins in unnamed Balkan countries after one of a long series of wars has ended–think Christians vs. Muslims and Turks vs. Ottomans.  But the novel takes readers back to the war years–not with graphic descriptions of war, but with descriptions of how war affects populations in general.

The protagonist, Natalia, is a young woman, a doctor, who has grown up during the war.   And the story begins as she and a doctor friend, Zora, go into conquered territory (that used to be part of a whole) on a peaceful mission to inoculate school children in a remote village.  She hears on the way that her grandfather, who raised her, has followed her to, according to her grandmother, help her, has died in yet another remote and strange village–which turns out to be not so very far from the village where Natalia is presently.  But Natalia’s grandfather is very sick with cancer, which Natalia and he have hidden from his wife.  So, WHY has he left home?  And so it begins, the unraveling of the history of her grandfather’s life in all its complexity and its mysteries AND of Natalia’s life, which is still fairly new.  The journey Natalia makes is a coming of age journey for her.

The grandfather and the granddaughter are both doctors, the grandfather a famous, once-respected one in the old regime.  Natalia and her grandfather are wedded to science and rationality; yet their lives are both filled with stories, of narratives that defy a grounding in actual reality.  And the reader begins to understand that “stories” are how we explain what we don’t understand.   The “tiger” of the title functions in the intersection between the real and the explanatory narrative–much as the white whale did in Moby Dick, as more than one reviewer notes.  And the zoo that holds tigers and the elephant functions a metaphor as well, but I’m still thinking about what is involved.

Here’s a quote from the text:

He learned, too, that when confounded by the extremes of life–whether good or bad–people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.  He learned that, no matter how grave the secret, how imperative absolute silence, someone would always feel the urge to confess, and an unleashed secret was a terrible force.

Part of what resonates with me in this novel is how people behave when what they know and the cultural power they have is perceived to be threatened or is threatened.  Is that not what is at the bottom of much of our politics these days?  We now live in a multi-cultural society, and there is a lot of fear of “loss” on the part of those who have had cultural power and who are now having to share it.

All through the war, my grandfather had been living in hope.  The year before the bombing, Zora had managed to threaten and plead him into addressing the National Council of Doctors about recasting past relationships, resuming hospital collaboration across the new borders.  But now, in the country’s last hour, it was clear to him, as it was to me, that the cease-fire had provided the delusion of normalcy, but never peace.  When your fight is about unraveling–when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event–there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it or are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them.  Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.

Natalia’s grandfather is well aware of the power of stories.  He creates a memory story with Natalia during the night he shares an experience with her that revolves around a rescued elephant coming to their local zoo.  It’s a magical scene that is powerfully written.  And he shared his own story of his experiences with “the deathless man.”  But she ferrets out his story of “The Tiger’s Wife” after he has died–a story that took place in the remote mountain village from which he came.

There are many other stories wound up in this tale.  Yet they are interconnected in many ways so that they form at least parts of a whole history–the parts Natalia needs to know to form her own whole story of understanding of her grandfather and, though that understanding, of why people often act the way they do.

I will keep my copy as a treasure.  And maybe in a few years will reread it again.

PS.  Obreht was born in Bosnia, but left there at age 7.