by Téa Obreht, the 26-year old first-time novelist who has been making headlines for months now. The New Yorker named her one of the top twenty fiction writers under 40 in America, and she was on the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 under 35. This is most definitely a literary novel , with beautiful prose and layers of meaning. My book group found plenty to talk about.
Describing the plot of The Tiger’s Wife is a challenge because the plot is not really the point, as is often the case with literary novels. Obreht brings the reader into the world of Natalia, a young doctor living in an unnamed Balkan country. Natalia and her best friend from childhood, Zóra (who is also a doctor), are driving across the recently created border to deliver vaccinations to children at an orphanage in a small town near the sea. On the way, Natalia’s grandmother calls her to tell her that her beloved grandfather has died.
Much of the rest of the novel takes place in flashbacks, with Natalia remembering times spent with her grandfather and stories her grandfather told her about his past, moving back and forth between different points of view and between the present and many points in the past, going back sometimes as far as her grandfather’s childhood. Here is the novel’s opening paragraph:
In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park. Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon while he recites the passages to me. Even though my grandfather is not wearing his stethoscope or white coat, the lady at the ticket counter in the entrance shed calls him “Doctor.”
It is clear that Natalia and her grandfather were very close, and their relationship is at the heart of this book and her attempts to unravel the past. There is a bit of a mystery in the present because Natalia’s grandfather died in a town far from home, and Natalia wants to find out why he was there, but that mystery is never really answered explicitly.
In fact, there is a lot in this book that is never answered explicitly. Our book group meeting was filled with a solid two hours of asking questions of each other. “What did he mean when he said this” or “Why did she do that?” or “Did anyone figure out…?” The novel is a convoluted tangle of past and present, action and stories, reality and legend. It is a novel that requires a lot of thought and consideration.
For the first time ever, our group members rated the book from 1 to 10. Surprisingly, after all those questions, most people rated it a 6, 7, or 8, though a couple of people really didn’t like it. Some people will see that it is a literary novel and immediately say, “no, thanks – too much work,” and that’s OK. It’s not for everyone. I couldn’t handle a steady diet of such thoughtful books; I need some fun and escape once in a while! We all agreed we would recommend it to people in book groups because this is the kind of book that requires discussion and reflection, but most of us enjoyed it and were glad to have read it. I also enjoyed reading about a place and a part of recent history that I knew almost nothing about.
(And if anyone figured out why The Tiger’s Wife was the title, I’d love to hear the explanation! Certainly, we all understood that the tiger’s wife was an important character but weren’t entirely certain why it was the title character.)
338 pages, Random House