Friday, February 4, 2011

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel

By the time she is thirteen, Natalia has taken so many trips with her grandfather to visit the caged tigers that she feels like a prisoner of ritual. Then a war hundreds of miles distant breaks the ritual: the zoo closes, curfews are implemented, students are disappearing, and spending time with her grandfather seems less important than committing small acts of defiance: staying out late, kissing a boyfriend behind a broken vending machine, and listening to black market recordings of Paul Simon and Johnny Cash. When her grandfather is suspended from his medical practice because he is suspected of harboring "loyalist feelings toward the unified state," Natalia adopts new rituals that keep her at his side when he isn't paying clandestine visits to his old patients. In return, he takes her to see an astonishing sight that offers the hope for an eventual restoration of the rituals that made up their pre-war lives. Natalia's grandfather tells her that this is their moment: not a moment of war to be shared by everyone else, but a moment that is uniquely theirs.

The Tiger's Wife is filled with wondrous moments, small scenes that assemble into a novel of power and wisdom and beauty. As an adult doctor delivering medicine across new and uncertain borders, Natalia grieves for her deceased grandfather while recalling the lessons he taught and the stories he told -- stories that more often than not center on death: how it is faced, feared, and embraced. Death is everywhere in this novel: death caused by war, by disease, by animal and man and child. And there is death's counterpoint, a character who cannot die (or so the grandfather's story goes). Death is virtually a character in the novel, as is the devil -- although the devil's identity is somewhat obscure, appearing as someone's uncle in one of the grandfather's stories, suspected of wearing the guise of a tiger by others. The tiger, of course, is a force of death -- feared by many, but not by the tiger's wife, who shows us that fear is unnecessary. Ultimately, coming to terms with death is, I think, the novel's subject matter.

Téa Obreht writes with clarity and compassion. She tells the interwoven stories that comprise The Tiger's Wife without judgment or sentiment. Her characters are authentic; with only one or two exceptions, she doesn't go out of her way to make them likable or sympathetic. Nor does she ask readers to hate characters who commit evil acts, although she wants us to understand them. She does not insist that we either condemn or condone the actions of a wife-abusing butcher. Instead, she gives us a chance to comprehend human complexity, to know that there is more to the characters than their offensive or violent actions. The village gossips, knowing nothing of the truth, judge both the abuser and the abused. Obreht shows us how foolish it is to judge others without knowing them ... and how unlikely it is that we will know enough to judge.

Obreht writes with the maturity and confidence of an accomplished novelist. Her style is graceful. It is difficult to believe that this is her first novel. If she continues to produce work as sound as The Tiger's Wife, readers should wish her a long career.


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