Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger's Wife is one of those books that manage to carry the reader’s imagination away simply by their myth; a story where it’s not that easy for one to tell the difference between the real and the imaginary, where tradition and everyday life many times come into collision, before finding their binding threats in the world of story-telling. Obreht, the young author, won the Orange Prize for this book, and before reading it I had my doubts as to whether she deserved it or not. Now those doubts exist no more. She did deserve it. As someone who lives close to, and every now and then in, the Balkans, I can understand better than most outsiders the realities of its people, enjoy its myths and legends, and meditate on the recent history of the region.
     But, let’s take a look at the story. Natalia, when she was still a young girl, used to go often to the zoo with her grandfather, sit along with him in front of the tigers’ cage and read The Jungle Book. Their favorite hero, as one would expect, was a tiger, who time and again was coming into life in Natalia’s imagination. But that was not the only tiger she knew, as every now and then her grandfather would talk about another one; one that decades ago arrived all of a sudden at the village of Galina, where he grew up. The animal used to terrorize the people just by being there, even though most of them didn’t even manage to get a glimpse of it. The only people that were not afraid of it were him, and a young deaf mute girl, who was married against her own will, with a tyrannical man. The two of them agreed, without any words spoken of course, to protect the tiger from the evil men, and the woman, sooner or later, and after her husband’s disappearance, would come to be known throughout the village as The Tiger’s Wife.
     But stranger things have happened during the long life of Natalia’s grandfather; none stranger though than his meetings with an undead man, some sort of a magician or not. Gavo, that was his name, had the ability to read in the coffee cup when one was to die. As the story goes, he used to travel from one place to the other, unchanged over the years, foretelling people’s deaths. Her grandfather, despite all the rumors and what by his own eyes has seen never came to fully believe in his magic. Sometimes reality though can prove harder to comprehend than fantasy. If one asked him one day what he best remembered of his meetings with Gavo, he would only mention this aphorism: “The greatest fear is that of uncertainty”.
     The narration travels back and forth in time, covering many decades and two big wars, in almost an offhand way. (“Doors are probably wide open, and blowing a breeze of paramilitary rapists”). And even though most of the story takes place in the past, the present is not quite absent from these pages; the present and its modern paradoxes.
     To put first things last: When we meet Natalia, she’s a young doctor and she’s travelling with her friend Zora, to offer their services free of charge at an orphanage in the non-existent city of Brejevina. In the fields surrounding the property the members of a family are working day and night to recover the corpse of a man, who’s believed to have cursed them all. It is on the way there that Natalia is informed for the death of her grandfather. After her departure the old man set on a journey that led him at a place not far from where she’s staying, and where he breathed his last.
     That was exactly the reason that pushed the girl to start a trip back to memory lane, where the present and the past interconnect, the prejudices resurface and history finds its way into the world of legend, or the opposite.
     This is a great story, told in a flawless narrative manner. If I can judge from the author’s debut I’d say that we should expect to see much more from her in the future. Now, as to whether she will be able to meet the expectations, that’s a different story. Let’s hope she will.

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