Fables of the Balkans: a review of The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel
cover image
by Random House
The former Yugoslavia, rife with war, a region vulnerable to superstition and myth-telling, is the apt setting for Tea Obreht debut novel, The Tiger's Wife. The Serbs believe that once someone dies their soul has forty days to hang around and visit its familiar places, to inspect its private things and make a little noise. Apparently one's soul does this so that it may realize it's truly dead and move on peacefully to the afterlife. If it cant find its way home, the spirit may be doomed to linger in unrest. It is with this foreboding that Ms. Obreht's story begins.

The narrator of this expertly woven tale, Natalia, is a young doctor. Her grandfather, also a doctor, with whom she maintains a special relationship for her whole life, influences her destined vocation and instills in her his love and respect for all living things, animals and human alike. One of their favorite forays was to the local zoo, the citadel, where they would visit, among other beasts, the tiger and grandfather would recite sections from his dogeared copy of The Jungle Book. 

Natalia along with her friend and colleague, Zora, are on a goodwill mission to cross the border to the fictional town of Brejevina, where they plan to inoculate and care for the children of the local orphanage there. It is during this trip, Natalia learns of the demise of her grandfather, realizing she must collect his personal effects from the nearby town where he met his end on the way to a rendezvous with her, his beloved granddaughter. Through this narrative, Obreht braids the two tales essential to the telling of her grandfather's life: the story of Gavran Gailé, the deathless man and the tale of the tiger's wife. The deftness with which she accomplishes this is remarkable for a novice novelist.

Some of the most affective writing in The Tiger's Wife can be found in the scenes involving Natalia's grandfather and the deathless man: a character cursed with immortality; tasked with, by means of reading the grinds in a coffee cup, informing the condemned of their fate and by turns alleviating the more fortunate of any portent of death. At their first meeting, grandfather wagers his prized copy of The Jungle Book against the veracity of Gavran's incredible  revelation. Later he learns another condition of the deathless man's punishment: the gathering of the dead for safe passage at the crossroads.

In one chapter they dine together in the mostly Muslim city of Sarobor, a doomed place at a time before the war took its firm hold over the region, the home of Natalia's grandmother. Grandfather, having knowledge that the Muslim section of the city will be bombed the following day, is drawn into the city where he had met, married and lived with his wife for some time. He decides to eat at a restaurant, deserted but for one attending waiter and one other diner sitting across the outdoor balcony. As the diner approaches him, he realizes that it is his old acquaintance, Gavran Gailé. Soon they are discussing death, the preparedness or the suddenness of it:
"'...believe me, Doctor, if your life ends in suddenness you will be glad it did, and if it does not you will wish it had. You will want suddenness Doctor.'
'Not me,' I say. 'I do not do things, as you say, suddenly. I prepare, I think, I explain'
'Yes,' he says. 'And those things you can do reasonably well for everything--but not this." And he is pointing into the cup, and I think, yes he is here for me too. 'Suddenness,' he says. 'You do not prepare, you do not explain, you do not apologize. suddenly you go. and with you you take all contemplation, all consideration of your own departure. All the suffering that would have come from knowing comes after you are gone, and you are not a part of it' He is looking at me, and I am looking at him, and the waiter comes with the check..."
It is of course the suddenness of death during wartime the deathless man portends; to the Doctor, a seemingly perpetual war. It is a glimpse into the near future with which the doctor is gifted; given that, can one truly cheat death?

Téa Obreht
one of the New Yorker's "20 under 40"
The story of the tiger's wife, takes place in Natalia's grandfather's hometown of Galina, a place that becomes plagued with the specter of a wild tiger. It is a small town filled with superstition and fear, a town where the sighting of a rogue tiger on the ridge outside of town would not have been so ominous if not for the pall of war which fell so heavily over its borders. The tiger young grandfather equates only to Shere Khan, the bane of the jungle people in Kipling's tale, but becomes inexorably conflated with the deaf-mute bride of the town's butcher after she is discovered feeding it. In a town that is on the verge of starvation, she soon becomes known as 'the tigers wife', a convenient scapegoat for the irrational and suffering citizens of Galina. Natalia's young grandfather is sympathetic to the battered deaf-mute bride, bringing her blankets and soup, and at one point relating to her the story of Shere Khan by drawing it out in the ashes of her fireplace. Yet he is never able to tell the Kipling version, always altering the story so that Shere Khan and the man-cub came to some wonderful truce:
"Who knew if the tiger's wife understood my grandfather's story, or why he was doing her this courtesy. it is easy enough to guess that, after the first few times he changed the story, she realized that he was hiding some deeper tragedy from her. Perhaps her gratitude for the tiger was matched by this new gratitude, the gratitude for help and human companionship, for the persistent and animated man-cub who drew stories in the hearth."
Obreht ties all three narratives together in a plausible and ultimately satisfying conclusion. She exhibits a kind of empathetic precociousness, a deeper wisdom that is truly lacking in young writers. I only hope that this, her literary debut, does not prove to be her best effort.

~Book Jones 4.5 Stars

  • Title: The Tiger's Wife
  • Author: Téa Obreht 
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition, First Printing edition (March 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780385343831
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385343831
  • ASIN: 0385343833