The Tiger’s Wife – continued – finished and appreciated

Tea Obrecht, Author of The Tiger's Wife

For those who are lost in the book – wondering whether or not to finish it – or whether to start at all…I’m continuing the review of The Tiger’s Wife – now that I have finally finished it…

When Steven Galloway wrote The Cellist from Sarajevo, he told the story outright; it was impossible not to understand the fears and terrors of the war.  But with The Tiger’s Wife,  Obrecht is obscure and only sidesteps how circumstances have changed lives – as though it’s too horrible to tell as it is – maybe she’s right.  Her use of myth and superstitious folk tales masks the real details.  As a result, her story does not follow a linear progression:  it jumps from Natalia’s modern dealings with those who have been emotionally scarred by predators to her grandfather’s youth with the folklore and superstitious stories that he held on to, even when he became a respected doctor.

Among her grandfather’s stories,  Natalia remembers the tale of the tiger’s wife, and she looks for more information as she returns to her grandfather’s boyhood village to recover his belongings, after he dies.  The tiger’s wife is a deaf-mute girl, constantly beaten and abused by her butcher husband; she feeds raw meat to the wild tiger escaped from the zoo – successfully keeping him satiated, thus saving the villagers.  Just as no good deed goes unpunished, the villagers’ superstitions lead them to see her not as a saviour, but as complicit with the devil.  Her mysterious pregnancy, after her husband’s death, only adds to their furor.

The vein of superstition is constant – in the story of the deathless man her grandfather periodically meets, who predicts death but cannot die; in the mora who feed off the graves of the dead, insuring their passage to the other side; in the tiger’s wife – and other folk stories Obrecht weaves into the action.  In the end, Natalia concludes that these superstitions have helped older survivors through the awfulness of war – the unknown was created as so horrible that the actual horrors are manageable.

When I read that some readers had dismissed the book halfway through  (as I almost did) because the story line was so difficult to follow, I was determined to persevere and analyze why I was finding it so hard to read.  Obrecht does jump in time and place, but so have other authors who have successfully navigated this.  The writing tool that tripped me was her constant penchant for introducing a character, then backtracking to describe his/her background, family, idiosyncracies – too much information too soon; it seemed irrelevant until I figured out how the character fit, and by that time, I was losing interest or forgetting the connection.   So, I started to skip over pieces to find the action again – then returned to the description – took a little longer, but helped me stay connected to the story.

The Tiger’s Wife is one of those books that demands analysis and slow reading – not for the faint hearted or readers who like to “get through” quickly to find out what happened. The war in the Balkans happened – again and again – and still.  The story is complicated, and the ending offers no real resolution.    The people somehow survived, but never to be the same.  Obrecht’s story tries to give a glimpse of why they are still afraid – the tiger gives them an excuse to forget the real terror.

This complicated book is probably not a good choice for a book club – unless it’s connected to a university discussion class – but a candidate for an award – it is on the list for the UK Orange Prize for Fiction.