After listening to an intriguing Guardian Books podcast on the way home a few months ago with enigmatic young author Téa Obreht speaking about her Orange Prize winning novel, The Tiger’s Wife; the mixture of the folkloric and surreal sounded exactly my cup of tea and I made sure to pick up a copy on my next shopping trip.
To say that I was a disappointed by this book would perhaps be a little harsh, however, perhaps due to the expectations I had I was slightly underwhelmed by Obreht’s confusing plot line, although it turned out to be a very sweet and poignant story at times.
Natalia is a young doctor living in an unnamed Balkan state (poss. Yugoslavia? I get very confused with the history/politics in this turbulent part of the world) skirting around the conflict to travel with her friend and colleague to an orphanage on the coast to inoculate the children living there. Natalia has a very special relationship with her grandfather, also a doctor, who she sadly discovers has died alone at a medical center in a remote part of the region only a few pages into the novel. This young woman’s exploration into her grandfather’s lonely few hours, set against a backdrop of death and superstition surrounding the village where they are based, sets us off into a barrage of atmospheric, folkloric tales that although very lovely, left me feeling slightly confused.
Travelling back to various points throughout her grandfather’s long career, we are fortunate enough to meet a host of interesting characters; the deathless man being one such person. Called to a settlement whose inhabitants are struggling to come to terms with a serious bout of consumption sweeping through the village, the doctor is called to confront a haunting taking place at the local church, where a man, thought to be dead, has been shot in the head after waking up during his funeral and is now making noises from his coffin at the back of the building. This man turns out to be Gavran Gailé; a mysterious character who claims to be immortal and present on this earth to deliver souls into the afterlife. He is a man who the doctor spends many a poignant, philosophical discussion with periodically throughout the book. The second lengthy tale concerns the Tiger’s Wife of the title; a deaf-mute girl living within the doctor’s childhood village of Galina; feared and ostricised by the villagers after she forms a curious attachment with a tiger that has escaped from the bombed city zoo….
In addition to not wanting to spoil this for anyone who has this book on their TBR; I find that the twisting narrative and lack of linearity makes this an extremely difficult book to summarise. Although I am impressed (and perhaps a tad envious) that Obreht has managed to write snippets of such touching prose at the tender age of 25, I also found myself sighing at times as I was thrust from the present back into another randomly related storyline in the past that just didn’t connect up in a fluid enough way, which is a shame because I am ordinarily a complete sucker for a quirky tale like this.
On the positive side, I haven’t read many novels set in this part of the world and, largely due to Obreht’s vivid portrait of the Balkans and the hint she gives us of a culture rich in folklore and rustled by recent conflict, I would now readily pick up a novel set in the chilly and magical hills of Eastern Europe. You can really sense the author’s roots here, her very personal attachment to this part of the world and this personal affection, coupled with elements such as the tragic animals trapped in the city zoo and the very special relationship between granddaughter and grandfather really pulled at my heart strings. There are hints of something wonderful to be had here and I am keen to see how Obreht grows as a writer in the future. I wonder if some short stories might suit? This definitely has potential….