Review of The Tiger’s Wife
In “The Tiger’s Wife”, Tea Obreht tackles the twin and interwoven themes of war and death with a mixture of lore, fable and myth. The war, although never identified, is the Balkan conflict of the nineties and Obreht pointedly never identifies real towns or landmarks instead preferring to use made-up names. In that way, she is able to imagine the country where the war takes place without having to tie the plot to real events or people. She can distill the rituals and vagaries of war into the journeys of her characters more freely without having to rein in her imagination.
And it’s her imagination that really shines for she is masterful at creating the backdrop for the story of her two main characters. It begins with a young doctor Natalia, the narrator, remembering her relationship with her grandfather, also a doctor, and his life growing up amid war. She learns of his death as she journeys 400 miles to a village where she will inoculate young children. He has “died alone, on a trip away from home … in a clinic in an obscure town called Zdrevkor on the other side of the border.”
The plot unfolds as Natalia tries to discover why her grandfather has died so far from home in a village that she has never heard of and why no one knew of his true intentions. Along the way, she encounters death in many forms: bodies being dug up in vineyards, bodies needed for scientific dissection, skulls of those long dead, and all the other detritus of a land sucked into the vacuum of a war created by leaders looking out for their own interests instead of for the citizens they supposedly represent.
Obreht weaves in fascinating cultural lore as in the Forty Days of the Soul that begin on the morning after death to encourage the soul to “return with a message, with a sign, or with forgiveness.” The fable of a tiger and the woman who loved it “so much she almost became one herself” is riveting and along with the myth of the deathless man who is condemned to live forever are “everything necessary to understand my grandfather” Natalia says early on.
With all the various narrative threads, The Tiger’s Wife is certainly a gargantuan effort. For the most part, Obreht achieves her goal. The first part of the story entices the reader in through compelling dialogue and scene setting. The forward momentum gets a little bogged down in the middle when we are immersed into the past through flashbacks of Natalia’s grandfather recounting the tiger fable and the myth of the deathless man. The endless exposition and sparse dialogue almost run away with the book but happily Obreht picks up speed again and lunges into a very satisfying ending.