Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

Of all the much hyped books of the past year, this novel was by far my favorite (by the way, the author's first name has an accent over the e that I couldn't figure out how to add). It's set in the Balkans and essentially moves between three storylines (a classic braid structure): the narrator's contemporary life as a doctor in a war-ravaged country, the stories her just-deceased grandfather told her about his life as a doctor in a war-ravaged country (with the added bonus of encounters with a character who is the nephew of Death), and the stories her grandfather told her about his life as a child in a village threatened by a tiger who has taken up residence near-by (and threatened by the woman who becomes the tiger's wife). Now this might sound like magical realism and apparently comparisons to Garcia Marquez have been tossed around, but it reminds me more of Michael Ondaatje. Obreht doesn't use magic so much as she uses legend. I mean there's a big difference between a novel saying Death's nephew is real and a character in a novel (the grandfather) saying Death's nephew is real. And I loved how Obreht used the histories and legends that are attached to her setting--any setting has them! It made the whole novel feel bigger and more believable because everything had a history. Naturally I was particularly interested in the traces left behind by the Ottomans--such as the Jannissary's gun that was passed down generation to generation and so because of its historical significance (and the fact that it was the only gun in the village) was used to hunt the tiger...

The contemporary storyline of the novel is less developed than the other two lines (deliberately so) but what interested me was how Obreht got away with this because the other two storylines filled in the contemporary storyline. The narrator is not fully examined and revealed, but everything we learn about the grandfather casts more light on her because it has been established that the two of them are the proverbial peas in a pod. So developing the grandfather has the secondary effect of revealing the narrator. And similarly the Balkan country is described in a somewhat limited fashion in the contemporary storyline but because we know so much of the place's past through the other two storylines, we end up understanding it quite well.

As I read this novel I actually looked forward to reading it again in the future--that's something I love, when I know I'm not getting everything the first time around and that I'll come back again.

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