Friday, 17 July 2015

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I knew nothing about The Tiger’s Wife other than the fact that it had made a big splash when it won the Orange Prize in 2011. Based on the title and the line drawing on the cover, I had made the lazy assumption that it must be based somewhere in the Far East. So I was taken aback, when I started to read, to find myself on a fictionalised version of the Serbian-Bosnian border, shortly after the end of the war and the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Natalia is a young doctor on a mission to inoculate children in an orphanage ‘over the border,’ when she learns that her grandfather has died in a clinic far from home where he has no business to be. His body has been returned to the family but not his possessions – including his beloved copy of The Jungle Book, with its illustration of Shere Khan, the tiger.

Her grandmother is distraught. She knows that for forty days after death, the soul wanders the earth, revisiting the places that it has known during life. During that time, the deceased’s possessions must be left undisturbed, to draw the soul back to where it belongs. Without that, it may get lost and wander forever.

And so the story starts to wander, back through Natalia’s memories of her grandfather and her experiences of war, through his life as a doctor, to his beginning in the tiny village of Galina. On the way, real life becomes entangled with folklore and the supernatural –in particular, the tale of the Tiger’s Wife and the tale of the Deathless Man.

The Tiger’s Wife is blackly comic, inhabited by larger than life characters – Luka the Butcher, Dariša the Bear, the Apothecary. As in Brecht’s Mother Courage, war is ever present, returning again and again to scar another generation. The characters are exhausted and numbed by it, carrying out what can seem like displacement activity, taking refuge in old superstitions. If they do not believe themselves, they are indulging those that do, allowing them what little comfort they can glean.

Natalia’s grandfather, the rationalist, mourns the fracturing of a country, the emergence of borders where none were before. He, an Orthodox Christian, married a Muslim woman from what is now a different country. When ‘his’ side are about the bomb the city where they met, that is where he returns.

Téa Obreht’s use of language is a delight. Perhaps because English is her second language (she learnt it after her family left Yugoslavia) her imagery is fresh and vivid. But perhaps because she left so young, and at the very start of the war, this is more about the myth of war that its specifics. This is not the place to come to learn about the history of the Balkans.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Avoid if you don’t like: Wandering narratives, mixing folklore with real life, mythologizing war.

Ideal accompaniments: Grilled John Dory with potatoes and chard, followed by baklava with quince rakija

Genre: literary fiction

Available from Amazon

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