I finished Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife a couple of days ago and have been mulling over what I wanted to write about – because there is SO MUCH worth writing about. From beginning to end, this novel was a 5 star read and I’m utterly fascinated by Obreht’s natural writing ability at so young an age. She’s a year younger than me and puts anything I’ve ever written to absolute and complete shame. What I do know is that this book begs to be discussed for hours on end and would be the perfect book club selection for a group who really wants to delve into the literary experience.
We follow three different story lines – Natalia, a young doctor in the Balkans, has just lost her grandfather as she and a friend tend to children in a makeshift orphanage, her grandfather’s tale of the ‘deathless man’, and the legend of the tiger and his wife who ‘terrorized’ her grandfather’s village when he was just a boy. The themes are endless – myth, legend, coping with reality, superstition, war, family, life/death, and ultimately, the power of storytelling.
It’s that storytelling bit that interests me most, specifically the art of passing a story on orally. Words written on paper are so mortal. They can burn in a fire, drown in water, or be forever lost in the havoc of life, but the oral tradition is much more immortal – flowing from one person to the next by ear, always alive in some form just waiting to be shared with the right person. And with oral stories you get to choose whether the story continues, as some stories aren’t meant to be shared, in direct contrast to being able to randomly stumble across a book – a subtle argument of fate vs. free will. I believe that through these stories, Natalia’s grandfather overcomes his own death and lives on forever inside Natalia, who, after all, has chosen the same medical path in life he did. The one tangible novel in the book, The Jungle Book, even ceases to exist once her grandfather dies – long live the art of oral tradition!
I’m not sure any of that came out coherently – I have all these ideas in my head that want to leap out onto the page and then once they get there they are all sort of boggled. Thankfully, The Huffington Post’s first book club selection is The Tiger’s Wife so I’ll be spending a great deal of my time there chatting away with folks. I still haven’t fully sorted out my thoughts on the magical realism aspect and what it means to the novel as a whole. I love that the magical tales are juxtaposed against the harsh realities of a war-torn society as well as the clinical science of Natalia’s medical world. There’s something there about finding a means to deal with the stark realities of everyday life and the inevitability of death. See the endless discussion possibilities?
Beyond all that literary nonsense above, Obreht’s writing is magical, but very dense. This novel is meant to be read slowly and thoroughly – and then reread again and again. You’ll love the animals and feel an almost Asian or Native American mythological vibe throughout. You’ll laugh at several parts, get frustrated with others, and smile at the most random sections. You’ll want to speak with others about your thoughts and the connections that come to light between the three stories woven together inside these pages. Not a perfect novel by any means, as the segue between stories can sometimes feel disjointed and a bit jarring. I also think the narrative overall could have been a bit tighter and concise – while her writing is gorgeous, sometimes the gorgeousness felt a bit never-ending and without purpose, but a wonderful debut, nonetheless.
Definitely started 2012 off with a bang! Next up is J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel, Commencement (she’s since released Maine which I haven’t read) and Macbeth by Will Shakespeare.