The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht, Random House, 2011, 338 pp
After much pondering, I have decided I need to read this book again someday. There was so much hype about the novel, the author, her youth, her background, on and on. I may have gone into it expecting something I did not find.
What I did find was beautiful writing. Let's do the page 99 test and take the first couple sentences: "You lose sunlight, and suddenly you are driving through a low cloud bank that is unfurling across the road in front of you. It is anchored to the pines and the rocks above you, to the sprawling pastures that open up below, dotted with ramshackle houses, with doorless inns, distant nameless streams." Nice.
I also found a main character who speaks usually in first person but sometimes in second. She is a medical doctor who believes in modern science but whose surroundings in postwar Yugoslavia are steeped in superstition and wild tales. The tales include a semi-feral tiger, once a zoo animal, who takes a human wife. But this woman is oddly unemotional while telling an emotional story so bottomless that you wonder how people survive life at all.
I liked the writing and the stories. I had trouble with the form which I found unwieldy and hard to follow. If you have read many of my reviews, you know that for me to say a book is hard to follow is really saying something.
The Tiger's Wife needs to be read slowly, in a savoring mood, with the full understanding that, despite having lived in the United States since she was twelve years old and despite having studied creative writing in American universities, Tea Obreht is an Eastern European writer. In a series of reviews and interviews I read at the blog 3 Guys 1 Book, I was enlightened by the comparison of The Tiger's Wife to novels by Orhan Pamuk, Naguib Mahfouz, and Nikos Kazantzakis. So there you have it. I tried to read The Tiger's Wife as a hot first novel by a young American woman. It is not that. When I read it again, I will know what I am getting into.
I can tell you this. About two years ago I read The Cellist of Sarajevo by Canadian author Steven Galloway. It was the only novel I had read about the Bosnian War and it was not bad. In fact, it was horrifying and moving. Still, it was a story told through the lens of a North American writer. The Tiger's Wife comes from a young woman who was born in the midst of that war, whose life and family were disrupted in ways I can hardly imagine, and who is bringing us news of her homeland along with the folk tales of its people.
To me that is worth more than a million newspaper articles, or nightly newscasts, or NPR commentaries. Even if The Tiger's Wife had been a bad novel, which it certainly is not, it was a necessary read for me.
(The Tiger's Wife is available on the new fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)