Published by Random House on March 2011
Source: my shelves
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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.
The main plot of The Tiger’s Wife–that of Natalia trying to discover the secrets behind her grandfather’s life and death–really isn’t anything special. I didn’t find myself asking the same questions Natalia was trying to find the answers to. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat wondering why such a sick man had lied to his family and traveled to an undisclosed location, probably knowing that he would die there. I didn’t feel a great sense of mystery or foreboding concerning the odd details of the grandfather’s death. I couldn’t really get into what was going on with the men who were digging in the vineyard.
But I also don’t think it was Obreht’s intention to give us that feeling.
I think Obreht’s intention was to bring us the wonderful, rich stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, and she had to find their place within another story–a place where she could tell the two stories and bring them together. Because that’s what The Tiger’s Wife is–stories within stories. It is a beautiful book about a granddaughter’s relationship to her grandfather and the stories that he gave to her before his death. It is about the stories that they experienced together during his life, and the one story that he didn’t give to her and that she had to find for herself after his death. And those stories–given to us in bits and pieces throughout the book–are suspenseful, wonderful, and well-written.
The story of the deathless man was probably my favorite. Whether or not it’s true (within the context of the book) is anyone’s guess. I personally think that her grandfather told her this story looking ahead to the time when he would no longer be with her. He probably imagined that it would be easier on her to imagine that at the time of his death he would not be alone, that his spirit would walk away with the deathless man, someone with whom her grandfather was at least familiar with, if not exactly friendly with. I had a grandfather that I was very close to, and I’m sure that a story like this would have made me feel just a tiny bit better about his death.
The story of the tiger’s wife made me very sad and shed a lot of light on the grandfather’s personality and world view. I cannot imagine having those experiences as a child, but they made the grandfather who he was as a man. This story left me with questions, though: What happened to the tiger? Did he live? How long did he live? Did he leave the ridge after his wife was gone? I know the end of the book answered these questions, in a way, but I still have a lot of thinking to do about it.
The smaller stories in the book were no less interesting: the story of the elephant, the backstories of Luka and Darisa the Bear, the stories about the war. I enjoyed them all. And although I couldn’t really get into what was going on with the men digging in the vineyard, I think that particular part of the main plot was just a way to bring Natalia and the town’s mora together, and I’m ok with that. I have been thinking a lot about what I should take away from Natalia’s meeting with the mora, too. Again, the other stories really carried the book for me and I enjoyed them immensely.
The Tiger’s Wife gave me a lot of thinking to do–in a good way–and that is what I like most about books like this. I used to think that all my questions needed to be answered by the end of a book and I would be frustrated if they weren’t. Now I am at the point that I don’t mind some things being left to interpretation, and if it’s done correctly, I actually enjoy it. The Tiger’s Wife is one of those books that will have me thinking for a long time, and I will keep coming back to it in my mind, specifics floating to the surface that will either change my interpretation or solidify the conclusions I had already come to. I think Téa Obreht deserves all the praise she has received.
(To learn more about Téa Obreht, please visit her official website.)
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