Téa Obreht – The Tiger’s Wife

Posted on | June 19, 2011 | 10 Comments

The Tiger's WifeTéa 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.”

“What 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.


10 Responses to “Téa Obreht – The Tiger’s Wife”

  1. Random Reflections
    June 19th, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

    I’m pleased you recommend this. I just gave this to my mum for her birthday. I haven’t read it myself, which is always a risk.

    I might even read it myself some time soon.

  2. Sarah
    June 19th, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

    Yay! I’m with Random on this one. Really glad you rate it. Amazon recommended The Tiger’s Wife to me the day after it won the Orange Prize. I’m not usually a sucker for a hard sell, but just this once…

    Can’t wait for it to arrive now. :)

  3. Steph
    June 20th, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    It’s gotten to the point where most of the book blogger reactions I’ve read about this book have been negative and most readers mention that they couldn’t make it all the way through The Tiger’s Wife, so it was really refreshing to read your positive review! I have a copy and have been planning to read it, so it was nice to finally hear a fellow reader (and not a professional reviewer) say some kind things about it! :D

  4. Justine
    June 21st, 2011 @ 5:27 am

    You’ve read my responses to this book!http://longingtobe.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/the-tigers-wife-tea-obreht/
    I’m glad that you liked it.I expect that I will land up revisiting it at some point in the near future and I will definitely looking out for Obreht’s work. She is a gifted writer.

  5. Coffee and a Book Chick
    June 22nd, 2011 @ 3:28 am

    I’ve also heard mixed reviews about it so I’m eager to read this one after your review. The storyline seems so interesting and I’m curious to experience the book myself to see if I would like or not like it. I love multiple narratives and find a story sometimes goes even quicker that way, you know?

  6. Joanna
    June 24th, 2011 @ 9:41 am

    The mixed reviews made me a bit wary of this book, but you make it sound interesting. I like when a book has something different about it, but I hate when it seems like it’s trying too hard, you know?

  7. gavin
    June 24th, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

    I’m glad you liked this one. I will link your review to mine:)

  8. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht | Page247
    June 24th, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

    […] Another Cookie Crumbles […]

  9. anothercookiecrumbles
    June 25th, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    @Random Reflections : You should. It is actually quite good, and I really hope your mum enjoys it as much as I did!

    @Sarah : Hah! I didn’t even realise it was on the Orange shortlist, to be honest. I was at Waterstones, found the title intriguing and the blurb at the back even more so, so I added it to my wishlist. I do hope you enjoy it… Amazon recommendations are a little… off… but hope this one works out for you!

    @Steph : I look forward to your thoughts on it. I was a little concerned about the negative reviews about this book in the blogging world, but my concerns were put to rest quite early in the book, so hope your experience is much the same!

    @Justine : Couldn’t agree with you more about her being gifted. Let’s see what her next work brings…

    @Coffee and a Book Chick : I know exactly what you mean. I flew through this book…. it just seemed such an easy interesting gripping read. I really hope you like it. :)

    @Joanna : Know what you mean… I don’t think this book is trying too hard though, which is what made me enjoy it. It’s not emotionally manipulative, sensationalism is non-existent and there’s no drama! But it still rolls on keeping the story interesting and fascinating.

    @gavin : Thank you!

  10. TOB 2012 – Reviews of Contenders « Hungry Like the Woolf
    March 2nd, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

    […] another cookie crumbles: “I was struck by how direct and wonderful the writing is – it’s emotive without being sensational, and it’s beautiful without being hyperbolic…..I loved this book, and would recommend it greatly.” […]

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