Posted by: biblioglobal | January 31, 2012

#5 Serbia

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Date finished: 1/30/12

How I found this book: I was reading through the New York Times list of top books for 2011 soon after starting this project and this book caught my eye. It’s quite a popular book and I had to wait my turn for it at the library.

The Tigers Wife by Tea ObrehtThe Tiger’s Wife is actually set in a fictional Balkans country, rather than specifically in Serbia, but Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade, now capital of Serbia and the home country in the book seems to more or less correspond with Serbia, so that’s how I decided to categorize it. (Anyone who has read this book, do you think my assignment is reasonable?) The problem of categorization comes up within The Tiger’s Wife as well. The main narrative of the book takes place after the wars which split the former Yugoslavian nations and makes some insightful comments about the aftermath of war and the break up of countries. The book’s narrator, Natalia, points out that the icons of each country must be reassigned- this Nobel-prize winner now belongs to them, but that musician is definitely still ours.

The book revolves around Natalia, who is a young doctor, and her grandfather, also a doctor, spanning the time from his village childhood just before WWII to the present. Interestingly, the intervening generation is ignored almost entirely. Natalia is traveling to a neighboring country to distribute vaccines to orphans in an effort at repairing relations and her grandfather has just died. (Another aspect of post-war life: the social awkwardness of how to mention the death of a relative with someone from ‘the other side’. Hint: don’t say who killed them.) In addition to the present day story and flashbacks to Natalia’s childhood and adolescence, two stories of her grandfather’s life are woven throughout the book- the story of the Tiger’s wife and the story of the Deathless Man. The stories are written together beautifully, though the book turns a bit mystical for my taste. That’s just a personal bias of mine. For some reason, I enjoy fantasy and science-fiction, but I tend to be bothered by realistic books with mystical elements. I think I feel like the author wants to convince me that mysticism plays a role in the real world too, which I resent.* In this case, the main characters feel some of the same resentment I do to mystical explanations. I’m not sure whether that makes me feel better or worse about it.

In my post about Kazakhstan I said that I didn’t know much the Soviet era because it fell between the time covered by my history classes and the time when I was old enough to have paid attention myself. I have to admit that in reading The Tiger’s Wife, I felt like that comment dramatically overestimated my knowledge of history. On the history class side, I couldn’t remember where Yugoslavia fell in World War II. (Turns out they initially opposed the Germans, but were conquered quite quickly.) On the lived-through-it side, I realized that although I know the names of people and places from having heard them over and over in the news, I have very little sense of what was actually going on during the break-up of Yugoslavia. While reading this book, I tried to look up some of the history on Wikipedia, but I’m still entirely confused. Maybe I ought to choose a history book as my selection for one of the nearby countries.

*Not too long ago I read Swamplandia by Karen Russell which was an interesting experience because the plot line put me in a position where I was hoping that the mystical explanation was the real one.



  1. If I recall what I learned from the History Channel between episodes of “Ghost Hunters”, in WWII, Yugoslavia was initially invaded by Italy. When they got bogged down, the Germans had to come down and help.

    That delayed the planned attack on Russia until later in the year, which meant that old General Winter was much more of a Russian ally than it might have been.

    Then again, 20% of the History Channel programming is based on “How Hitler almost won!”

  2. Interesting. Wikipedia seems to indicate that that Italy got bogged down somewhere before Yugoslavia and the Germans invaded a few days before the Italians did. The Tiger’s Wife only mentions the Germans though. Serbia was apparently controlled by the Germans while other areas were controlled by the Italians and Bulgarians. I guess that’s another indication that the country in the book more or less corresponds to Serbia.

  3. In my case, I should have paid attention to my history classes. That way, I could have known at least some Indian history. As for world history, World war II was summed up in 3 chapters and there was no space for mentioning places like Yugoslavia. Of course, establishing control over the Balkans (for trade?) was why the first world war started, our textbook said. I hope you find a good history book for your next Balkan read.

    • I’m not sure that my history classes made much mention of Yugoslavia’s role in WWII either. But then the coverage of Indian history pretty much consisted of watching the movie Gandhi.

  4. Your analysis of mystical-like novels hits a responsive chord with me. I can take fantasy and science fiction, but the author is clearly not trying to get the reader to buy that the book in any way reflects the real world except by way of metaphor.

    • I’m glad you liked that point. I’ve often tended to be annoyed by magical realism-type books, but I hadn’t really managed to articulate to myself why until I was writing this post. One of the benefits of writing book reviews I suppose!

  5. […] out that it’s much easier to write these immediately after reading the book, as I did for The Tiger’s Wife. (If you’re keeping track, that’s why this one is out of order.) So, I’ve decided […]

  6. We need to pick a selection for the May meeting of our book club. Would you recommend the Tiger’s Wife? Would this generate 2 hours of lively discussion related either directly to the book or to themes it raises?

    • I definitely think The Tiger’s Wife could be a good choice. There are a lot of interwoven themes in it and there would be plenty to discuss. I’d also really recommend the book I’m reading right now, Poor Economics, which is about carrying out scientific studies to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions to help the poor in developing countries. It’s quite a fascinating book, I’m hoping to write about it soon. I guess it would depend on whether you wanted fiction or non-fiction.

  7. […] The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Serbia). This novel is about a young woman doctor in a Balkans country recovering from the recent […]

  8. […] notable that all of the Goodreads ratings for books I read fell into a fairly small range, from The Tiger’s Wife rated 3.36 (Why on earth is it rated that low?!) to Persepolis and Poor Economics which tied at […]

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