I recently had the opportunity to see the spectacular War/Photography exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. It is a beautiful and gut-wrenching exhibit, showing images of all aspects of war from as early at The Civil War to the current war in Iraq. It is one of the best exhibits I’ve been to in a long while, and I highly recommend it. However, this post is not about the exhibit, per se. The reason I bring it up is because once I got home that evening, I began Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, a quiet yet fierce tale set in an unnamed Balkan country, torn apart by wars and uncomfortably pieced back together again. It is a sweeping, gorgeous, and powerful story, skipping back and forth in time to tell the story of young doctor Natalia, her grandfather, and his stories of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. The visual narrative presented in the exhibit’s Balkan photographs stayed with me as I read, creating a much more layered and complex reading experience as real images mentally paired with the fictional descriptions of the destruction and its aftermath.
It is hard to forget that Obreht wrote this novel when she was still in college, not because the writing is immature, but because Obreht’s voice rings so clearly through the narrator, Natalia. The reader believes in Natalia because Obreht believes in Natalia. It is almost as if Obreht weaves her own family’s stories through her narrative. Her style is remarkably vivid, coursing with a quiet intensity that connects all of the various stories. I’m not sure I would call it full magical realism, as some have done, but there is certainly a magical element both to her content and to her prose.
This magical feeling comes mainly from the stories told by Natalia’s grandfather throughout the book. They are rooted in the folk tales and the superstitions of the Balkans, though they recount events supposedly experienced by Natalia’s grandfather. These stories were my favorite part of the book, particularly the ones about Darisha the Bear and the dinner with the deathless man on the balcony. I do not wish to spoil anything, so I will just say that Darisha seemed to be the most fully realized of the characters within her grandfather’s tales, and, like her grandfather, the deathless man greatly frustrated and annoyed me until that eerily serene dinner watching the bombs fall on the city. And I ached with Natalia’s 9-year-old grandfather as he desperately tried to help the tiger’s wife as his village succumbed to fear and superstition. These elements of folk culture presented some of the most exhilarating and beautiful moments of the book and, honestly, made the book.
The sections detailing Natalia’s experience, some time in the late 1990’s, fared less successfully, I felt, and functioned more as the well-made frame upon which her grandfather hung his stories. One of the most satisfying elements, however, was the earned surprises. Obreht is, refreshingly, adept at creating traceable but completely untelegraphed surprises, and I loved going back and finding her hidden clues after each masterfully executed surprise. The deliciousness of the “Aha!” moments combined with the satisfaction of the “Of course!” that followed never failed to entrance me, and that little thrill of exhilaration that flutters the heart upon such a surprise was a welcome reward.
Overall, the book was impressive, evocative, and entirely affecting. I do not wish to make it seem a light book, as it is not, but it is certainly one that is easy to get swept away in. Thank you, Caitlin, for the recommendation, and I pass the recommendation on to my readers as well.