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 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.