The circumstances under which I read this book were not promising. Pages snatched on long-haul flights, changing time zones, waiting for connections – conditions not normally conducive to a satisfying reading experience. Despite this, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obrecht turned out to be a revelatory and completely engrossing read. It is a book that demands a second reading, not just for the haunting story but also for the beautifully crafted prose.
The story is set across several generations in an unnamed Balkan city (which I have subsquently pin-pointed as Belgrade because I couldn’t stand not knowing). Told in two voices, it concerns the circumstances of the death of a doctor, and the unravelling of his final few days, by his grand-daughter, Natalia. Natalia is also a doctor. She has crossed the border into hostile territory to administer medicines to a remote village orphanage ostensibly left resourceless after the war in the 90s. From there she travels to the village where her grandfather died, hoping both to retrieve his belongings and to get some clue as to his demise. She muses over the stories about his childhood, when, on the cusp of World War Two, internicine conflict was played out with bizarre and unpredictable twists by villagers whose lives were as much about superstition as they were about politics and ideologies.
Along the way, Natalia pieces it all together with her own childhood memories – the tale of a rogue tiger, the deaf-mute young woman said to be the tiger’s wife, her grandfather’s obsession with his pocket copy of The Jungle Book, the “deathless man” whose predictions of mortality proved to be strangely prescient.
The Tiger’s Wife has a fable-like magic realist quality to it. The story is certainly intriguing but it is the prose that is the real drawcard. Obrecht’s writing is lucid and she handles words with the confidence of a much more experienced writer. Indeed, it is no surpsie that she was included (as the youngest) on the New Yorker’s top 20 writers under 40 list. Unpublished until now, she now joins an alumni that comprises Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Euginedes, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz among others. Impressive stuff indeed.
Big names are backing this luminescent novel.
From Ann Patchett:
The Tiger’s Wife is a marvel of beauty and imagination. Téa Obrecht is a tremendously talented writer.
From T.C. Boyle:
A novel of surprising beauty, exquisitely wrought and magical. Téa Obrecht is a towering new talent.
From Colum McCann:
Téa Obrecht is the most thrilling literary discovery in years.
If you liked the Life of Pi or the early works of Isabel Allende, this is certainly going to appeal to you in spades. There is much here for book clubs to enjoy as well. My only regret is that I had to shed my proof copy in an airport lounge. This is definitely one I want to keep in hard copy form in my bookcase.
The Tiger’s Wife is available to order now for delivery from March 24.