Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Worker Bee Reviews The Tiger's Wife

Mystery, quest, folktale, poetry. Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife is a novel of superb scope and nuance, told in rich, lyrical prose.

Natalia, a young pediatrician forestalled in mourning her grandfather's death by its strange circumstances, seeks out the story of his final days in a Balkan country still reeling from years of conflict. Traveling to an orphanage in Brejevina with her best friend, Zora, in order to administer innoculations, Natalia meditates on the two folkloric stories entrenched in her grandfather's life: the Tiger's Wife and the Deathless Man. In the present, Natalia's own story takes her to places as deeply embedded in superstition as the characters peopling her grandfather's chimerical tales. Ultimately, Natalia's quest, and her historical research into her grandfather's life and the stories that shaped it, all coalesce to comprise The Tiger's Wife--a truly multi-layered, polysemous achievement.

An added boon to the novel's succulent prose is its perfect yoking to the story's folkloric structure. Obreht's transitions, from Natalia's narrative to her grandfather's twin sagas, are both seamless and stunning. Yet her language, magical though it may be, refrains from turning syrupy; though the novel progresses via shifting narratives--requiring a kind of virtuosic balance--Obreht remains in complete, flawless control of its movement and its imagery.

Tea Obreht is a young author--The Tiger's Wife is her debut novel--born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia. But her age, rather than limiting her wisdom, seems to work as but another strength of the novel. I found her ability to render the war in Yugoslavia digestible absolutely striking. She directly addresses the conflict so infrequently that when it is centralized, the effect is both childlike and trenchant: "The war had altered everything. Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that formerly represented their respective parts of the whole" (161). Obreht ponders, too, the very nature of conflict: "When your fight has purpose--to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent--it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling--when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored . . . there is nothing but hate" (283). Far from oversimplifying, Obreht's handling of the war through Natalia's account is one of the book's greatest strengths, both on a literary and a human level.

My only quibble with the novel is its occasionally wayward literary experimentation--i.e., a sudden shift to second person, an odd temporal leap, or a penchant for backstory extending even to objects, such as the blacksmith's musket. But it may certainly be argued that these techniques are germane to the novel's content. Also, either the experimental variety lessened as the book progressed . . . or, I was simply too charmed to notice it anymore.

In essence, this is a true delight for the literary reader. Peruse The Tiger's Wife and bask in Obreht's lush descriptions, her folklore on the cusp of magical realism, and remember its sequence of stories as one recalls a vivid dream: green, lush, and strange.

Summer Reading Advisory: My parting bit of advice is to read The Tiger's Wife slowly--it is to be savored--and remember the opinion of the people of Brejevina: " . . . [If] you are making your journey in a hurry, you are making it poorly" (98). This book catalogues a murky passage of time, perfect for summer languor. Find a patch of sunshine and sip its words like nectar.


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