Posted on | June 19, 2011 | 10 Comments
Téa Obreht, at the age of twenty-five, won the Orange Prize for her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, which was given to me as a birthday present on my twenty-sixth birthday. In the blogging universe, the opinions on the book were widely divided, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Almost immediately, I was struck by how direct and wonderful the writing is – it’s emotive without being sensational, and it’s beautiful without being hyperbolic.
Set against the backdrop of the Balkan civil wars, Natalia, the narrator traces back to her childhood and recalls the stories her grandfather told her, after she finds out about his death in a strange city from her grandmother. He had told the family that he was going to visit Natalia, but… that was not the case.
As Natalia embarks on a journey to figure out who her grandfather was, she realises that there are two stories – two legends, if you like – which sum up her grandfather’s life.
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 – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.
Her grandfather was an avid animal lover, with a special place in his heart for tigers, and he oft’ took Natalia to see the tigers at the local zoo, before war erupted and the zoo was forced to shut down, resulting in a strain in the relationship between the two – a strain that they conquered with time. I found myself completely floored by some of the thoughts put forward by Natalia’s grandfather, who, despite being the secondary character, took centerstage.
“You must understand, this is one of those moments.”
“One of those moments you keep to yourself,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said. “Why?”
“We’re in a war,” he said. “The story of this war — dates, names, who started it, why — that belongs to everyone. Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before . But something like this — this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. Only to us.”
The multiple narratives that transpire – the story of the deathless man, the story of the tiger’s wife, the present-day mission that Natalia is on (to help young children at an orphanage across the border) and the story of her grandfather’s life – on her quest are handled effortlessly and had me gripped throughout. Perhaps some of the stories were fictional fables, perhaps some were plain superstitions. Indeed, some were not even believable, but all of that took a backseat while I read the legends and tried to work out how they all fit together.
While the relationship between the grandfather and granddaughter was the essence of the book, what had me captivated was the awe and reverence that the scenes about the tiger invoked. Tigers are one of my favourite animals – they are definitely the most regal, and command all the respect in the world. However, to be completely honest, I’ve never once spared a thought to how wars affect animals.
The tiger did not know that they were bombs. He did not know anything beyond the hiss and screech of the fighters passing overhead, missiles falling, the sound of bears bellowing in another part of the fortress, the sudden silence of birds. There was smoke and terrible warmth, a gray sun rising and falling in what seemed like a matter of minutes, and the tiger, frenzied, dry-tongued, ran back and forth across the span of the rusted bars, lowing like an ox. He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss nor succumb to. He did not know what to do with it. His water had dried up, and he rolled and rolled in the stone bed of his trough, in the uneaten bones lying in a corner of the cage, making that long sad sound that tigers make.
I loved this book, and would recommend it greatly… and I look forward to Obreht’s next book.