Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife

I had just gotten off the bus when a pang of hunger hit, insistent. A convenience store greeted me. My finger still marking my place in the book, I grabbed an orange and went to pay. At the counter, I put down the story, regretfully losing my place to riffle through my wallet. The adorable old man behind the counter took notice of my reading material as he was taking my change: “Oh, The Tiger’s Wife? That is supposed be good. What is it about?” Hey, Kindle! Eat your heart out.

…But that debate is for another time and place. Speaking of which, I would call “time and place” the most successful parts of Téa Obreht’s debut. An overwhelming sense of the past, of family, of generations and of tales passed down through them, pervades this book. Superstition bumps up against modernity, ever at odds even as they cling to each other.

In everything but writing style, The Tiger’s Wife reminded me of The Lazarus Project. They are appropriate Easter books, dealing with dead men and men who are deathless for one reason or another. The past interacts directly with the present and the future. Lives are built and lost on stories. Both authors hail from the now defunct Yugoslavia, a background that informs their war-torn fiction. Both Obreht and Hemon immigrated to the United States, and though she is two decades younger, they came overseas within five years of each other. They write in English, their second language.

Obreht’s prose is a bit sleepier than Hemon’s. She writes languorous sentences that curl up on themselves like a great big cat. In contrast to Hemon’s crackling first page, she crafts a dreamier opening, filtered through the haze of manufactured memory rather than the sharper fictionalization of forgotten fact. The setting of The Tiger’s Wife is completely fabricated, though it is made hyper-real with elaborate observations—debris by the road, the interiors of houses, precise paths through a city that never was. Somehow, these gathered examples of existence only make the world more dreamy.

There are quite a few disparate stories in this novel, and a central narrative is hard to find. Nothing is intrinsically wrong with the plots, and I enjoyed them all separately, but I was not compelled forward for quite a while. The reading did speed up as soon as the threads started to knit together.

Oddly enough, the characters that seem most real are those who are the most improbable. Rooted in folklore and magical realism, people form: A nephew of Death, cursed into immortality for love of a girl, has a coffee cup that tells the drinker when they will meet his uncle. A deaf-mute girl, battered by her dream-deferred* husband, forges a bond with a tiger that escaped from a bombed zoo. A young boy who is the primary caretaker for his epileptic sister grows into a skilled taxidermist and legendary bear hunter. Any members of the mythological cast could go toe to toe with Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house. Unfortunately, the present day characters don’t hold up their end of the story and seem to get lost in it.

Promising and poised for a really excellent book, Obreht has just written a good one here, though there are stripes of greatness running through it.

*Seriously though, if Obreht didn’t intend for Langston Hughes’ poem to accompany the butcher’s story, that is one eerie coincidence.


  1. Yes, yes, yes! While I think the narrative had its issues, I think The Tiger's Wife is a gorgeously conceived novel. I think we have great things to look forward to from the very young Ms Obreht.

  2. Indeed! I'm still chuckling over the Magnificent Fedrizzi.