Book Review: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife

War is the bloody thread binding the present to the past in The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht’s prize-winning first novel

Belgrade-born author Téa Obreht published her debut novel at age 25 | Photo: mabel.sound

Téa Obreht

Belgrade-born author Téa Obreht published her debut novel at age 25 | Photo: mabel.sound

Fear and Myth: The Law of the Jungle

The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht’s spellbinding debut novel, acutely depicts postwar life in a Balkan country resembling the former Yugoslavia, where history and myth form a potent mix, and the restless souls of the dead continue to trouble the living.

Winner of the 2011 Orange Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award, The Tiger’s Wife is all the more remarkable because it was published when Obreht was only 25 years old. She writes with confidence, demonstrating a visceral understanding of the psychic wounds of war. Yet her novel is not directly autobiographical. Though born in Belgrade in 1985, like many ex-Yugoslavs, she is of mixed ethnic ancestry. Obreht and her family left when war broke out. Since the age of 12, she has lived in the United States.

In The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht nimbly navigates between the fractured postwar world inhabited by the young doctor Natalia Stefanović, where hatred and distrust still lurk just beneath the surface, and the sinuous, fable-like past of Natalia’s grandfather, in which fear and superstition rule. In both worlds, ritual and myth play a critical role.

We meet Natalia en route to inoculate war orphans across the border in what used to be another province, but after civil war is now an independent state. “The war had altered everything,” Natalia reflects. “Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics… Previously shared things – landmarks, writers, scientists, histories – had to be doled out according to their new owners… And all the while we told ourselves that things would eventually return to normal.”

But what is normal when mutual distrust persists? Natalia can’t escape the hideous irony that the children she is caring for were orphaned by troops from her side.

While on this mercy mission, Natalia learns that her beloved grandfather has died under mysterious circumstances in a village not far away. She is the only one who knew he was dying of cancer, but even she does not understand why he left home, though she has her suspicions.

Natalia had worshipped her grandfather. He was a prominent physician until the war came, when he was forbidden to practice because he was thought to still support “the unified state.”

“All his life, he had been part of the whole – not just part of it, but made up of it,” Natalia recalls. Her grandfather “had been born here, educated there. His name spoke of one place, his accent another. None of this had mattered before the war.” Her grandfather had insisted, “I have no side. I am all sides.” But “everybody’s from somewhere.”

As a child, Natalia had accompanied her grandfather to the zoo each week to visit the tigers, where he read from a battered copy of The Jungle Book as if from the Bible. Though it seemed to be his talisman, the book was a constant reminder of both an unpaid debt and his secret guilt over a long-ago death.

It is not surprising that Obreht counts Gabriel García Márquez and Mikhail Bulgakov among her favourite writers. The Tiger’s Wife contains fantastical elements: Animals exhibit human characteristics and humans take on those of animals. At the novel’s core are two fable-like narratives that “run like secret rivers through all the other stories” of Natalia’s grandfather’s life. One is the tale of the deathless man, and the other is the story of the tiger’s wife.

Her grandfather first encountered the deathless man in a village afflicted by tuberculosis, and met him again on the eve of a massacre. The deathless man attended the dying, but asserted that he would never be granted final peace himself. The grandfather, a man of science, was sceptical of this claim, and challenged the deathless man to prove it.

The tiger’s wife was a deaf-mute Muslim girl whom Natalia’s grandfather knew as a child during World War II. Locked in a savage marriage, she was isolated by her silence. Her otherness made her an object of suspicion among the villagers, but things changed with the arrival of a tiger.

The Tigers WifeFreed from a zoo by German bombs, the tiger entered the village like fear. Only the deaf-mute was not afraid of him. Accustomed to humans, the tiger “saw the girl as she had seen him: without judgment, fear, foolishness, and somehow the two of them understood each other without exchanging a single sound.” Witnessing their mutual understanding, Natalia’s grandfather wanted to be part of it.

In the novel’s most extraordinary passages, Obreht inhabits the tiger’s mind. He is a powerful beast capable of great violence, but he is not malevolent, merely hungry. There is also a chilling moment when the deaf-mute girl’s face curls into the snarl of a tiger.

In The Tiger’s Wife, the mythologised past is tightly entwined with the the real present. “Mythmaking and storytelling are a way in which people deal with reality,” Obreht said in an interview with the novelist Jennifer Egan. “In Balkan culture, there’s almost a knowledge that reality will eventually become myth.”

In a sense, The Tiger’s Wife is itself mythology, a recasting of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s on a continuum stretching far into the past. The end of war, Obreht writes, “provided the delusion of normalcy, but never peace. When your fight has purpose – to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent – it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unravelling – when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event – there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it.”

After the tiger slips away from the grandfather’s village, the villagers “are aware, all the time, that the tiger has never been found, that he has never been killed.” And so the omnipresent fear remains.

The Tiger’s Wife
by Téa Obreht
Phoenix (June 2011)
pp. 352

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