The Tiger’s Wife

We were seventeen, furious at everything because we didn’t know what else to do with the fact that the war was over. Years of fighting, and, before that, a lifetime on the cusp of it. Conflict we didn’t necessarily understand—conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinions on, seized as the reason for why we couldn’t go anywhere, do anything, be anyone—had been at the center of everything. It had forced us to make choices based on circumstances that were now no longer a part of our daily lives, and we kept it close, a heavy birthright for which we were only too eager to pay.

After months of seeing Téa Obreht’s cherubic face imploring me to buy this book (in bookstores, online, and, eventually, in very vivid, frankly horrifying, hallucinations), I finally gave in and read it. I had thought, maybe hoped, that because Obreht is only two years older than I am—and because she looks about a decade younger than that—that her debut novel would not be all that impressive. I had expected glimmers of promise, but mostly overwritten, indulgent, standard MFA-style writing. (You know the type, even if it exists mostly in our collective imagination.) Well, in spite of Obreht’s actual MFA, there was nothing derivative, self-congratulatory or even just plain mediocre about The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht is a true writer, and this is her beautifully-composed evidence.

The Tiger’s Wife is not really one story, but rather three separate threads woven together. It is narrated by Natalia, a doctor on a goodwill mission to a devastated town across the border from her home country. War has rewritten both the landscape and the lives of the inhabitants on both sides; Natalia herself has spent her entire life either anticipating war, living through it, or experiencing the aftermath. As a result, there are new tensions between people who were once allies, and there is discord where there should be harmony. The rational Natalia immediately clashes with superstitious villagers, but over time she begins to question her own certainty in what is true. Her time in the village reminds her of her beloved grandfather’s upbringing—vivid to her from the stories he would tell—and her narration switches back and forth between her own experiences and those of her grandfather decades before.

Obreht introduces a folk tale quality to her storytelling as she describes characters like the Deathless Man and the Tiger’s Wife. It is these fantastical characters that move the novel forward; the reader can’t wait to learn more about them. The interaction between Natalia’s grandfather and the Deathless Man is particularly interesting: they meet numerous times throughout the novel, and each meeting is both unnerving and completely magical. While other sections can tend to drag, brought down by too many beautiful details and left to languish in excessive specificity, the novel as a whole is always buoyed back up. The Tiger’s Wife is a stunning debut that promises good things from (and for) Téa Obreht.

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1 Comment

  1. I couldn’t agree with your review anymore. It was stunning, my thoughts exactly. : )

    Reply

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