Remembering childhood stories her grandfather once told her, young physician Natalia becomes convinced that he spent his last days searching for "the deathless man," a vagabond who claimed to be immortal. As Natalia struggles to understand why her grandfather, a deeply rational man would go on such a farfetched journey, she stumbles across a clue that leads her to the extraordinary story of the tiger's wife.
Natalia mourns silently; she doesn't even confide in Zora. Her grandfather, also a doctor, was clearly a mentor and role model. As Natalia remembers visits she and her grandfather made to the zoo, she begins retelling stories he passed down to her, mostly about his life and the people of his village. The stories read like folk tales. The end of one story often led to another, to flesh out a particular character even further. This put me off at first, because I kept wanting to get back to Natalia, Zora, and the village. I struggled a bit with the magical realism in stories featuring "the deathless man," but I persevered and enjoyed them more than I thought I would.
I really wanted to love this book, but in the end I simply liked it. I spent the first half of the book frustrated, unsure where it was going. Then I got swept up in one of the stories and thought, "now we're cooking, I'm really going to like this!" I found the connections between stories interesting, and became emotionally invested in some of the characters. Unfortunately, I was unable to hold onto those feelings. Téa Obreht is clearly a talented writer, and despite my feelings about this book I'm looking forward to watching her career and reading more of her work.
This impressively intertwined story is of a young doctor, Natalie, looking for the truth behind her grandfather’s death and his final unexpected behaviors. She finds an enormous amount of inner courage to meet old beliefs and superstitions head on. Reminiscing about her close relationship as a young girl with her grandfather, Natalie recalls the secrets and love they have shared. Though her education to become a doctor has prepared her for the practical realities of living and restoring health, she finds a wisdom and maturity in the unlikely tales her grandfather has shared with her about “the deathless man” and “the tiger’s wife”. She has inherited a passion for truth and a capacity to accept mystery.
To me, this is a story of Natalie’s transition to adulthood in a difficult, war-torn environment. It struggles with understanding the human condition when basic needs of love, comfort, stability and answers to the unknown are not met. By the end of her own journey, Natalie has gone through a rite of passage and is better prepared to carry on the tradition of her grandfather in healing and comforting. She begins to perceive and understand the loneliness of physical isolation, group fear, and the power of belief.
The story is told for the most part by Natalia, a young doctor identifying orphans following the Balkan Wars. She receives word that her beloved grandfather has passed away under somewhat suspicious circumstances and decides to go to the place where he died; along the way the story unfolds. The narrative consists of stories Natalia remembers her grandfather telling her as a child, as well as stories the townspeople have passed down from generation to generation. It is really a story within a story within a story, which is what makes it somewhat difficult to follow at first. But once you are able to clearly identify these threads, the resulting narrative is superb.
The two most important pieces are the deathless man, who makes three appearances in the book and is an immortal being who has a tremendous impact on the grandfather’s life and the tiger’s wife, a deaf mute girl who lived in the grandfather’s village when he was a child. The writing is over-the-top beautiful and yet it’s the storytelling that is the real star here. The narrative flows easily from one story to the next and then back again and on to another one, seamlessly moving through the layers. And of course the war and its impact on the population are always in the background:
“On that empty stretch of highway, there is a single sign pointing you in the correct direction. It is easy to miss, a wooden board with the words “Sveti Danilo” scrawled in white chalk, and a crooked arrow pointing toward the gravel path that turns down into the valley below. The sign will not tell you that your car is good for only fifteen miles down that track, or that you will have to walk the rest of the way. The sign will also not tell you that, once you have turned onto the path, you have effectively committed to spending the night; that your car will probably not make it back up in one try; that you will spend eight hours with your knees against your chin, your back against the door, your flashlight pointless and unused in the trunk, because to retrieve it you would have to get out of the car, and that will never happen.” (Page 98)
The Tiger’s Wife is a book that will require you to concentrate and think as you read it but the rewards are great. Highly recommended.
I absolutely loved this rich, multilayered novel, with the slow building up of the different narratives which form a rich tapestry. I am quite sure this story will stay with me for a long time to come... and perhaps forever. Sublime.
Obreht has written a story that weaves together many threads. At its core, we meet Natalia, a doctor in a Balkan country that has been torn apart by war. She is traveling to give vaccinations at an orphanage when she learns that her grandfather has died. In an attempt to understand what her grandfather was doing at the time of his death, Natalia reflects back on the stories from her grandfather’s past. We meet the tiger’s wife, her abusive husband, and the deathless man. And we gradually piece together disparate pieces of a surprising past.
Obreht writes beautifully. Each story that is introduced is a gem in itself, haunting and fantastical. Although Obreht demands a lot of her readers, asking us to sort through multiple unusual experiences to come to understand what became of Natalia’s grandfather, we are rewarded by a reading experience that is unusual in itself. Each time I picked up the book, Obreht created an atmosphere with just a few sentences. It made it easy to sink into this complex story.
I have to admit that I didn’t develop a close connection with any of the characters in this book. In some ways, they were overshadowed by the story itself. But that is a minor complaint given the quality of the writing. This book has received quite a lot of attention for a first novel, and in my opinion, it is well-deserved.
Set in unnamed Balkan nations, The Tiger’s Wife tells the story of Natalia, a young physician who is traveling to an orphanage to inoculate wartime orphans. En route, she learns of her grandfather’s death. Natalia knew her grandfather was ill with cancer, so his death came as no surprise, but she was stunned to learn where her grandfather died – in a little village near the orphanage where she was headed. Why was he there instead of at home with Natalia’s grandmother and mother?
As Natalia contemplates her grandfather’s death, she reminisces about his life – specifically stories from his childhood and youth. There’s the Tiger’s Wife – a young deaf-mute woman from his village – and the Deathless Man – who captures souls before people die. Even further, you learn about the village butcher, apothecary and local bear killer. Here’s where Obreht shines: the retelling of folkloric stories, the conjuring of superstition and the devastations of war. In these tales, which are woven through Natalia’s narrative, the reader must employ patience and suspend some level of disbelief. In doing so, you will be rewarded with stories that will enrich and delight you.
The rhythm of The Tiger’s Wife takes some getting used to. Stylistically, it’s a complicated novel with interweaving story lines and time frames. Even writers with more experience could lose themselves in this storytelling. The fact that Obreht didn’t is a testament to her writing talent. I would recommend The Tiger’s Wife to readers who enjoy folklore with contemporary fiction. I look forward to future stories by this talented young writer.
Natalia becomes a doctor, like her grandfather, in an unnamed Balkan country that has seen many years of war. While on a mission to help orphans in a neighbouring country she finds out that her grandfather has died, supposedly while enroute to visit her. While on her way to try and find out what happened to him and get his personal belongings back, the reader is treated to flashback stories from his youth and throughout his amazing life.
"Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life --- of my grandfather's days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again."
The story jumps from present day to flashbacks without defined lines and without any difficulty to follow the route Obreht was taking. She writes an almost magical tale of love and mystery, but while there is graphic content that had me wincing she still had me entranced. I loved how she left many things open for the reader to draw their own conclusions. I was amazed to read the author bio afterwards and find out this was her debut novel at the young age of 26! Amazing work for such a young author.
I found the writing to be choppy, disjointed, non-linear (I know, with three story threads that is inevitable) and generally obtuse. I found myself re-reading line after line after line, because the prose was continually unclear to me. I found none of the characters likeable, engaging, or evil enough to be truly interesting. So what is the novel's appeal? From my perspective, I am at a loss to answer this question.
At first I felt it may be my unfamiliarity with the physcial setting. This wasn't conveyed very well in the writing. So, I went to the Internet and viewed photographs of the Balkins and reacquainted myself with the recent historical conflicts. None of this seemed to help. But I was determined to persevere and finish the novel, even though I was in near agony with each succeeding page.
Perhaps it was the emotional letdown after my reading of Ann Patchett's latest novel State of Wonder--one of the finest books that I have ever read and destined to be a huge success when published later this year. However, Ann Patchett, along with two of my other all-time favorite writers (T.C. Boyle and Colum McCann) offered enthusiastic blurbs for the dust jacket. Now, I am out of step with not only the general reading public, but three of my favorite authors.
By the time that I reached the half-way point in the novel I kept thinking about something a wise bookman once told me--"Just because it is a great book, doesn't mean you have to like it." Perhaps The Tiger's Wife may turn out to be considered a "great book". I only know that books have that unique capacity for doing an entire cosmic sprectrum of things to you. They can enlighten you, confirm things, entertain and I suppose, along with a myriad of other things, they can even bore you. In that case you can go and find another one. And I have decided to do the same.
The key to understanding her grandfather seems to be found in the stories that he held closely so she retells the two major ones about the tiger's wife (which explains the grandfather's youth) and the deathless man (which explains the grandfather's last days). These stories include many exotic Balkan characters: the bear man, the tormented butcher and his long-suffering deaf and mute Muslim wife, the deathless man, etc.
The book blends folklore (fantasy) and naturalism (reality). Throughout, the reader encounters rural superstitions which colour the interpretation of events. Some suspension of disbelief is certainly required.
The book is about life in the Balkans in the second half of the twentieth century when the area was plagued with ethnic wars and shifting borders and allegiances. The tiger's wife, who is oppressed, desperate, lonely and brave, is the central symbol of war-torn Yugoslavia. She instills fear and hatred, the same passions that inspired the region's ethnic disputes. The images of zoo animals eating their young or gnawing at their legs is a metaphor for Serbia-Yugoslavia devouring her own children. The purpose of the repeated references to death, the dying, skeletons, corpses and rites for the dead should be sufficient but the author feels compelled to add statements like, "The war had altered everything" (161).
The author has been hailed as the newest literary wunderkind, but I was left largely unimpressed and with a feeling of dissatisfaction at the end. Obreht's prose is heavy on description which adds little to the story. The tales of the tiger's wife and the deathless man are interesting, but I found I lost interest when the novel returned to the present. The tales are interesting in themselves, but what they reveal about the grandfather and his motivations is so very obvious. I was expecting more thematic depth.
Our young doctor, Natalie, and her many relationships in the present-day Balkans, including that with her grandfather, feel flat; to this reader, they seem to only be the vehicle to bring us from one mythic tale to the next. In these stories, of the tiger's wife and the deathless man, Obreht shines. I might have liked this book if it felt coherent; if the characters were more interestingly drawn; if Obreht had focused on which story she was really wanting to tell. Instead, I felt like I skimmed the book, waiting for the good parts.
It was a good story, with interesting twists and turns in the plot that keep one reading along and with enough intelligence to hook the better readers. The elements of magic realism in this book had enough novelty to surprise a reader.
But this book did not capture my heart. I liked it well enough to finish it, but I don’t have enough enthusiasm for it to recommend it heartily to others.
Then again, that has been true for all of the adult novels I’ve read that have been published this year. All have been good but not excellent. None of them won my heart. Good enough for a coffee date, but not for a date on Saturday night.
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht could have been entitled "The Tiger's Wife and the Deathless Man", because the latter's story is, in its way, equally important. The narrator is Natalia, and because of her grandfather's influence she has become a doctor in the Balkan area they grew up in. It is war-torn and riddled with deprivations and lingering superstitions. Men and children dig in a hillside for a long-buried cousin they believe is making everyone sick and must be moved. The hills supposedly are haunted by a mora who helps the dead cross over. Homes are crumbling, and one disappears altogether when its bricks are put to other uses. Natalia has traveled a long way to help, and learns her grandfather has died nearby, trying to reach her. Only she and he knew he was dying from cancer.
Obreht is a remarkably confident and agile writer, and what is most remarkable is she was 25 years old when she finished this. There are many transcendent moments. One involves a middle-of-the-night wake up by her grandfather to join him in the deserted streets to see a wonder, saved from the war's ravages. "The story of this war - dates, names, who started it, why - that belongs to everyone. . . . . But something like this - this is yours. It belongs to you. And me. Only to us." In another, her grandfather has a delicious dinner with an unexpected guest in a well-appointed restaurant that they know will shortly be obliterated by bombs.
I wish this multi-course dinner of a book had been, in the end, more delicious. All the ingredients were fresh and well-prepared, the meal carefully thought out and put together. But for me it never pulled together as an exquisite feast. Lots of style, many great moments, but no story as a whole to experience and carry with me. She's a writer to be reckoned with, no doubt about that. But this one misses out on being something really special.
Which isn't to say that there aren't reasons to recommend "The Tiger's Wife." Obreht writes -- let's admit it -- astonishingly fluidly and beautifully for her years, and the book is strongest when it discusses the elements of the novel she probably had first-hand experience with: NATO's bombing campaign, the confused, divided aftermath of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, and how teens reacted to a war that was on everyone's mind but that didn't affect their everyday lives all that much. We hear about late night adventures, bootleg tapes of rock music, and the occasional draft evasion. There's also the author's lovely description of the relationship, both personal and professional, between the main character and her grandfather, a man of great dignity and bearing who negotiates with his own demise as best he can throughout much of the book.
As for the moral implications of the book, I'm also of two minds: the suspicious, gossipy village that the author uses as an allegory of sorts for the book doesn't really do much to address the issue of collective guilt that's bound to arise after events of this magnitude. At the same time, novel's focus seems to be squarely on healing and recovery, both of the physical, medically oriented variety and of the deeper spiritual kind. The author's meditation on medicine -- as a form augury, compassion, and control are thoughtful and touching. But, as difficult as parts of this book were to read, particularly those concerning the tortuous home life of the tiger's wife herself, there were times when I wished it was a bit more grounded, and maybe a bit more brutal. Recommended, perhaps, but with many reservations. Dear reader, you'll have to make your own mind up about this one.
The tales of the deathless man and the tiger's wife are almost on the verge of introducing a sort of fantasy/gothic/magical realism element to the book which occasionally reminded me of Life of Pi or Shadow of the Wind.
For a first novel, it's certainly ambitious and whilst Obreht's writing is very, very good it felt to me like the multiple narratives never completely worked. However, I still really enjoyed this book and I will definitely look out for any future books she writes.
Set in an unnamed Balkan country after the Balkan War, this is the story of Natalia and her grandfather. She is a young doctor on a mission to take medicines to orphans across the newly established border when she receives a call from her grandmother telling her that her grandfather has died. He's died far from home, having claimed that he was traveling to see her, Natalia. The fact of his death does not surprise her as she knew he was ill but that he claimed to be coming to her is entirely new to her. Although she continues with her difficult mission trip, she cannot stop thinking about her grandfather, to whom she was close, her childhood with him, and the tales he told her.
As Natalia continues with her intended medicine delivery and administration, she retells the stories, the cultural mythologies told to her by her grandfather and which threaded through her childhood. As a young girl, she visited the zoo with her grandfather many, many times, always spending the most time with the tiger. As war is declared and times change, Natalia grows tired of her grandfather's predictable habits and pulls away from their outings but she internalizes his stories of the tiger's wife and of the deathless man. As an adult, thinking back on her younger self and her experiences with her grandfather, she remembers and tells these folktales, these magical stories that symbolize the fear of death in this area so recently haunted by the brutality and killing of war.
These fantastical stories her grandfather told wrap through the present day narrative but seem often, to be part of a different story entirely, not as well-integrated as I'd have liked. They threaten to overwhelm Natalia's story in places but they also take on an air of tediousness and I found myself hoping that we were almost through them at other times. The language of the novel is beautiful and well-written but it is ultimately flat and the over-arching feeling of the book as a whole is the gloomy, dark, and grim aftermath of a needless war. Ultimately I just wanted to turn the last page and even discussing it with my book club didn't give me a deeper appreciation of the book. I'm sure I've missed something here but darned if I can figure it out.
The author is a great, poetic writer, there is no denying that. But the plot, however poignant it was meant to be, just was not able to draw me in or hold my attention. I'm disappointed as I really wanted to like this book. I am glad others were able to enjoy it but I guess I just did not see what they did.
my rating- 2 stars for DNF
Prior to reading this novel, I read a collection of essays which were coincidentally written by someone from "the former Yugoslavia". Talk about a one-two punch! Try reading this novel and "Nobody's Home" by Dubravka Ugresic consecutively. Fascinating juxtaposition of perspective on the impact of dissolving a nation and highlighting of the different ways in which we all seek to make meaning of life!
Natalia and her friend, Zora, are both doctors and traveling to an orphanage by the sea in the former Yugoslavia to deliver medications, when Natalia learns her grandfather (also a physician) has died. Although his death is not a surprise (she knew he was ill), what shakes her is that he did not die in his home but far away in an isolated village and apparently he was on his way to see Natalia. Confused and grieving, Natalia continues on to her destination determined to understand her grandfather’s death through the stories of her childhood. She remembers her days at the Citadel with her grandfather, outside the tiger’s cage, listening as her grandfather reads from his worn copy of The Jungle Book. But there are other stories, some her grandfather has told her, and one that he has not.
The Tiger’s Wife is a sprawling, beautiful novel that unfolds gracefully as the narrative moves back and forth in time, revealing the life of a man through the stories he has shared with his granddaughter. Place is very important in this novel set in the Balkans. Although Tea Obreht uses fictional towns, the history of the region bleeds into the narrative. The presence of war looms throughout – including the Nazi invasion, and the Yugoslav Wars.
People must have seen him, but in the wake of bombardment he was anything but a tiger to them: a joke, an insanity, a religious hallucination. He drifted, enormous and silent, down the alleys of Old Town, past the smashed-in doors of coffeehouses and bakeries, past motorcars flung through shopwindows. He went down the tramway, up and over fallen trolleys in his path, beneath lines of electric cable that ran through the city and now hung broken and black as jungle creeper. – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 94 -
This novel is full of symbolism, the most obvious being the tiger himself – a graceful, powerful predator who brings beauty and fear to a small mountain village in the wake of the Nazi invasion. The tiger of the novel is the physical embodiment of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book – a fictional character who comes to life for Natalia’s grandfather one cold and magical winter. Tigers are gorgeous, they are stealthy, and most certainly they remind us that we are mortal and death may only be a paw swipe away. Obreht explores the idea of death and spirituality in The Tiger’s Wife. There is the story of the deathless man, a man who is able to cheat Death, who passes through her grandfather’s life like a shadow. And when Natalia arrives in the seaside village with Zora, she discovers a group of people digging in the vineyard, searching for a body whose spirit, they believe, is sickening their children.
But it would be wrong to assume that The Tiger’s Wife is only about our understanding and coming to terms with death. It is so much more. This is a novel about prejudice and fear, how stories shape who we later become, and our connection to family through the stories of our childhoods. This is a book about superstition and magic fused with reality. For me, the most satisfying part of the novel was the power of story. Obreht introduces the reader to the rich history of folklore and storytelling in the Balkan region – a region filled with diverse culture and religion, and one whose history is as complex as its people.
Obreht brings to life dozens of characters who weave through the stories within the story, adding depth to the narrative. Perhaps the most troubling and curious character is the village apothecary who looms larger than life for Natalia’s grandfather.
Standing under the counter, one sock lower than the other, my grandfather would look up at the shelves and shelves of jars, the swollen-bottomed bottles of remedies, and revel in their calm, controlled promise of wellness. The little golden scales, the powders, the herbs and spices, the welcoming smell of the apothecary’s shop, were all things that signified another plane of reality. And the apothecary – tooth puller, dream interpreter, measurer of medicine, keeper of the magnificent scarlet ibis – was the reliable magician, the only kind of magician my grandfather could ever admire. Which is why, in a way, this story starts and ends with him. – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 104 -
I loved this book – its sprawling, nearly dreamlike, narrative; its incredible description of place; and its fantastic characters. Tea Obreht excels as a storyteller. The best tellers of tales are those who are able to immerse their audience in the texture, taste, smell and feel of the story. Tea Obreht does this effortlessly. I was riveted to The Tiger’s Wife and carried along through its pages by the spellbinding voice of a very talented writer.
The Tiger’s Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction – and I believe it earns its place there. This is a memorable novel, a magical novel, one that had me dreaming of tigers and snow capped mountains and a man who cannot die. Readers will be thrilled and swept away by this book…one of the best of the year.
They alternate with chapters much deeper in myth and magical realism which are the stories from her grandfather's past, many of them centering around a deathless man and a young deaf, mute girl known as the Tiger's Wife. These alternate stories go in depth into several tangential characters, in some cases removed by decades, in a kaleidoscope that never quite comes together. Many of them could standalone as short stories, in some cases quite good ones, but in others more distracting. (And they have stories within stories, like a several page narrative of the centuries of history of the only gun in the grandfather's village, which coincidentally mirrors a similar section in another novel that came out this year, The Secret History of Costaguana.)
The grandfather is fascinating, the younger woman less so, and some of the stories feel more like filler and it is hard to understand how they fit together. Nevertheless, a lot of powerful images of death, civil war, animals and their role in human society, and the role of memory and history.
From a personal standpoint, I found the parts that centered on the Deathless Man and The Tiger’s Wife to be far more interesting then Natalia’s story. In fact, a book about the grandfather’s life and the people he encountered might have made it an even more interesting read. Still, it is a strong novel and worth the read.
" When your fight has purpose -- to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent -- it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling -- when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event -- there is nothing but hate, and the long slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed on it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them, then the fight is endless, and come in waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it."
This exchange between the narrator Natalia and the character of Marko sums it up best for me. "Where is the girl buried? it suddenly occurs to me to ask him. "What girl?" he says. "The girl," I say. "The tiger's wife." "What has that got to do with anything?" he says. My thoughts exactly. What has anything got to do with anything in this book?
Near as I can figure out Natalia goes in search of how her grandfather has died in some fictional Balkan country. In between the search, the magical realism tales of the Tiger's wife and the Deathless Man are told. Beyond that I don't know.
This book did not grab me or compel me to keep going. It took three checkouts from the library for me to get through it. It's only because I stubbornly refuse to abandon a book once I start it that I was able to finish it. Every time I put it down it was like cracking through a wall of concrete to get back into it. Whatever the greater meaning of this work is somehow is lost on me. I will think twice before reading another novel that's so critically acclaimed. I guess I am not on the same wavelength as the important literary critics. Swamplandia!, you can thank the Tiger's Wife for putting you on the back burner.
While trying to provide care to the orphans, Natalia tries to make sense of and some peace with the loss. She tells us that "everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife and the story of the deathless man." From there the narrator takes us through her life with her grandfather and the importance of these two stories in his life.
However, these two stories are only borders of her grandfather's essence and like Russian nesting dolls, there are stories within the stories which open up to us as the narrative progresses. Many of these stories are folkloric with hints of animism and magical realism. War is the back drop for many of these stories and there are often parent-less children at the heart of the stories
I have read this book twice and listened to it as an audiobook once. The narrative is complex in it's structure, but it is complete as the author explores the territory of loss and mourning. Just as geographical boundaries and borders shift as a result of the wars that have scarred the Balkans, the boundaries between life and death as well as hope and despair move in the heart of the narrator as she comes to term with the loss of a grandfather who has been a pillar of strength in her life.
Dr. Natalia’s work inoculating war orphans in a Balkan country is interrupted when she learns her grandfather died under mysterious circumstances. Memories of their time together, stories shared and an illustrated copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book come and go as she arranges logistics and interacts with war stricken villagers. When she learns that her grandfather died not far from their makeshift hospital, she rushes to the site to collect his belongings and learn of his final days. A gripping story of Balkan wars, of shifting ethnic borders and allegiances, of science and legend, of love and fear.