Book Review: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself.

But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.

Grief struck and searching for clues to her grandfather’s final state of mind, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child. On their weekly trips to the zoo he would read to her from a worn copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which he carried with him everywhere; later, he told her stories of his own encounters over many years with “the deathless man,” a vagabond who claimed to be immortal and appeared never to age. But the most extraordinary story of all is the one her grandfather never told her, the one Natalia must discover for herself. One winter during the Second World War, his childhood village was snowbound, cut off even from the encroaching German invaders but haunted by another, fierce presence: a tiger who comes ever closer under cover of darkness. “These stories,” Natalia comes to understand, “run like secret rivers through all the other stories” of her grandfather’s life. And it is ultimately within these rich, luminous narratives that she will find the answer she is looking for.

I really wanted to like Tea Obreht’s debut novel.  I thought, hey here is a girl not that much older than me publishing a novel that got rave reviews and isn’t my normal-of-late dystopian novel so I’ll probably like it.  I don’t know if it wasn’t just my cup of tea during the time I was reading it or if it just isn’t my cup of tea in general.  My bookclub voted to read this novel and I was looking forward to discussing it with them but, of course, my job kept me away and I missed out on hearing what everyone else had to say.  I prefer to go to bookclub when I didn’t jive with the book as opposed to when I did because I feel my ears are more open.  I love listening to people share what made them fall in love with a read and having my eyes opened to something new.  Now, admittedly I read this book over the span of 2 months while traveling a lot and never sat down for a long stretch of time to read so I think I missed out on the flow of the text.  With that said…

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht weaves a complex tale of secrets, death, myth, folklore, and the relationship between humans and animals.  Through the narrator, Natalia, we meet her famed physician grandfather who raises her on stories of the Tiger’s Wife and the deathless man, her best friend Zora who joins her on a medical mission that takes them over the border to their wartime “enemies” where they meet: a friar whose brother’s death holds many secrets, his parents who are the key to those secrets, and workers tearing apart a vineyard in search of their family member’s body.  Through her journey across the border, Natalia finally learns the secrets of her grandfather’s mysterious disappearance and location of his death and begins to understand more about the reasons behind his childhood stories.

Obreht shows a lot of constraint in not explaining every little detail which often serves to frustrate the reader rather than inspire them.  At times I did want a little more detail but understood her reasons for not spelling everything out.  It served to make me feel what Natalia was feeling: constant frustration and confusion over her grandfather’s mysterious ways.  Obreht also manages to seamlessly go between Natalia’s present and the grandfather’s past, sometimes a little too seamlessly where I forgot which “world” I was in.  And while in the grandfather’s childhood, we are also taken into the worlds of some of the citizens of his hometown.  All of Obreht’s tales serve to drive the reader further into the mysteries of the tiger and it’s relationship to Natalia’s grandfather.

Where my dissatisfaction lies is in my own inability to understand where Obreht was going and the reasons behind the story.  This is where bookclub would have come in handy.  I definitely feel that The Tiger’s Wife deserves more time and attention than I was able to give it and I plan to one day return to its pages.

I’d say if you want to think, then this is a number 1 recommend.  If you don’t want to think, don’t bother.  For me, I rate it a number 2 recommend.


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