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The Tiger’s Wife – Book Review

My grandfather never refers to the tiger’s wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself – and will for years and years. – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 4 –

Natalia and her friend, Zora, are both doctors and traveling to an orphanage by the sea in the former Yugoslavia to deliver medications, when Natalia learns her grandfather (also a physician) has died. Although his death is not a surprise (she knew he was ill), what shakes her is that he did not die in his home but far away in an isolated village and apparently he was on his way to see Natalia. Confused and grieving, Natalia continues on to her destination determined to understand her grandfather’s death through the stories of her childhood. She remembers her days at the Citadel with her grandfather, outside the tiger’s cage, listening as her grandfather reads from his worn copy of The Jungle Book. But there are other stories, some her grandfather has told her, and one that he has not.

The Tiger’s Wife is a sprawling, beautiful novel that unfolds gracefully as the narrative moves back and forth in time, revealing the life of a man through the stories he has shared with his granddaughter. Place is very important in this novel set in the Balkans. Although Tea Obreht uses fictional towns, the history of the region bleeds into the narrative. The presence of war looms throughout – including the Nazi invasion, and the Yugoslav Wars.

People must have seen him, but in the wake of bombardment he was anything but a tiger to them: a joke, an insanity, a religious hallucination. He drifted, enormous and silent, down the alleys of Old Town, past the smashed-in doors of coffeehouses and bakeries, past motorcars flung through shopwindows. He went down the tramway, up and over fallen trolleys in his path, beneath lines of electric cable that ran through the city and now hung broken and black as jungle creeper.  – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 94 –

This novel is full of symbolism, the most obvious being the tiger himself – a graceful, powerful predator who brings beauty and fear to a small mountain village in the wake of the Nazi invasion. The tiger of the novel is the physical embodiment of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book – a fictional character who comes to life for Natalia’s grandfather one cold and magical winter. Tigers are gorgeous, they are stealthy, and most certainly they remind us that we are mortal and death may only be a paw swipe away. Obreht explores the idea of death and spirituality in The Tiger’s Wife. There is the story of the deathless man, a man who is able to cheat Death, who passes through her grandfather’s life like a shadow. And when Natalia arrives in the seaside village with Zora, she discovers a group of people digging in the vineyard, searching for a body whose spirit, they believe, is sickening their children.

But it would be wrong to assume that The Tiger’s Wife is only about our understanding and coming to terms with death. It is so much more. This is a novel about prejudice and fear, how stories shape who we later become, and our connection to family through the stories of our childhoods. This is a book about superstition and magic fused with reality. For me, the most satisfying part of the novel was the power of story. Obreht introduces the reader to the rich history of folklore and storytelling in the Balkan region – a region filled with diverse culture and religion, and one whose history is as complex as its people.

Obreht brings to life dozens of characters who weave through the stories within the story, adding depth to the narrative. Perhaps the most troubling and curious character is the village apothecary who looms larger than life for Natalia’s grandfather.

Standing under the counter, one sock lower than the other, my grandfather would look up at the shelves and shelves of jars, the swollen-bottomed bottles of remedies, and revel in their calm, controlled promise of wellness. The little golden scales, the powders, the herbs and spices, the welcoming smell of the apothecary’s shop, were all things that signified another plane of reality. And the apothecary – tooth puller, dream interpreter, measurer of medicine, keeper of the magnificent scarlet ibis – was the reliable magician, the only kind of magician my grandfather could ever admire. Which is why, in a way, this story starts and ends with him. – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 104 –

I loved this book – its sprawling, nearly dreamlike, narrative; its incredible description of place; and its fantastic characters. Tea Obreht excels as a storyteller. The best tellers of tales are those who are able to immerse their audience in the texture, taste, smell and feel of the story. Tea Obreht does this effortlessly. I was riveted to The Tiger’s Wife and carried along through its pages by the spellbinding voice of a very talented writer.

The Tiger’s Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction – and I believe it earns its place there. This is a memorable novel, a magical novel, one that had me dreaming of tigers and snow capped mountains and a man who cannot die. Readers will be thrilled and swept away by this book…one of the best of the year.

Highly recommended.

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21 Comments

  1. July 10, 2011    

    I had been a bit on the fence about this one, so I am very glad to see that you liked it! You wrote a fantastic review, and now I think I am going to have to rethink my plans about grabbing this one!

  2. Kay Kay
    July 10, 2011    

    Wendy, you make this one sound very, very appealing. I know there has been a bit of controversy about the selection of the Orange Prize this year. Glad to hear that it worked so very well for you and I’ll put it on my list.

  3. July 10, 2011    

    As soon as I read your review I put myself on the waiting list at our library for this book! Thanks for doing your reviews, Wendy.

  4. July 10, 2011    

    I, too, have been on the fence about this book, but you’ve convinced me that I need to buy a copy.

  5. July 10, 2011    

    I am curious about this book, but your review makes me think that at some point I should read it!

  6. July 10, 2011    

    I’m so glad to see that you loved this one so much. I haven’t been so keen lately, but now I can’t wait to read it!!

  7. July 10, 2011    

    Oh, yes yes, YES! I’m so glad more people are reading this, now! And I am SO glad you enjoyed it. I loved it for its present day honesty and also its storytelling mystic bit. Very nice review. Thanks for it!

  8. July 10, 2011    

    A wonderful review of a wonderful book. I loved the folklore in this novel. =)

  9. July 10, 2011    

    Heather: Oh, I hope you’ll read it! I have to be honest, I don’t understand the negative reviews on this one at all!

    Kay: I’ll look forward to seeing what you think of it!

    Sand: you’re welcome – I have a feeling you’ll love this book 🙂

    Kathy: Hope you’ll agree with my opinion on it!

    Kailana: well, of course, I think everyone should read it 😉

    Aths: You and I often agree on books, so I hope you’ll love it!

    Pam: LOL – your enthusiasm just comes through loud and clear in your comment!! It is a terrific novel…I can’t wait to read her next book!

    Jill: Yes, the folklore was so great – it was really what made the book shine for me.

  10. July 10, 2011    

    This book sounds beautiful! I can’t wait to read it at some point (hopefully soon).

  11. July 11, 2011    

    Well you’ve convinced me to give this one a try. I hadn’t really been interested until I read your review. I think I’d like to give it a listen on audio, if it’s available at my library. Thanks for the enticing review.

  12. July 11, 2011    

    You really loved this one! I love the feeling of connecting with a book in so many ways. I finished The Tiger’s Wife this weekend and am still figuring out how I feel about it. I think it’s brilliant, but I don’t think I actually liked it very much. I wholeheartedly agree Obreht is a talented writer, and I look forward to seeing where her career goes.

  13. July 11, 2011    

    I’m excited to read your positive review. I started this one and had to return it unfinished, but it’s high atop my Orange July reading list.

  14. July 12, 2011    

    5 stars across the board!? Fantastic!

    I bought a copy of this several months ago, but have yet to read it. Perhaps a book to take on vacation this summer.

  15. July 16, 2011    

    I just finished this book (seriously, about five minutes ago) and am trying to sort out my head about it. Such a beautiful novel with a heavy sense of place, people, and myth…if I didn’t have to return it to the library today I’d probably read it again from the start just to clarify it in my mind! The author certainly has a very distinctive and strong voice, and I look forward to seeing what else she may create.

  16. July 18, 2011    

    Amused: I hope you get a chance to read it soon!

    Les: I really hope you love it! I would think the audio would be good because of the stories within stories…

    Carrie: I know you are not alone…so many people don’t seem to like this one, and it is really one of my favorites this year…

    Andi: Hope you’ll get to read this one – I think you might be in the “I loved it” camp 🙂 Just a guess!

    Dawn: Oh, this would be a good vacation read! Hope you love it!

    Kate: Sounds like this is one that really resonated with you too…I agree about sense of place…and the myth part of it was really wonderful.

  17. August 6, 2011    

    I finished reading “The Tiger’s Wife” this afternoon. It takes a skilled story-teller to interweave times and narratives; over and over I kept turning to the author’s bio and wondering how on earth Tea Obreht managed such skill so young. I found the story rich and satisfying, engaging in its depiction of culture and sense of place, of the nature of differing human communities.

    Overall, a captivating study of people’s refusal to accept different spirituality and culture, with a dollop of hope that one day, we’ll figure out how life and death and myth and reality all will fit together seamlessly.

  18. August 7, 2011    

    Sand: I am SO happy you found the beauty in the book as I did! I love your the last paragraph of your comment…very, very true! Thanks for coming back and letting me know your thoughts on the novel.

  19. September 5, 2011    

    Just found out I’m getting this from paperbackswap soon. Looking forward to reading this!

  20. September 12, 2011    

    Michelle: I hope you love it! It is SO nice to see you in my comments again 🙂

  21. Adriana Mack Adriana Mack
    March 9, 2013    

    I had been a bit on the fence about this one, so I am very glad to see that you liked it! Heather: Oh, I hope you’ll read it!

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