Home > Kev's Blog > 14-Oct-2013 October book club : The Tiger’s Wife

14-Oct-2013 October book club : The Tiger’s Wife

Monday 14 October 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

 For book club this month the selection was The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. To save telling the story you can read the reviews below. We had 8 people show up (only about 15 on our list in total), and we think our limit is about 10 as we only meet for an hour and that way we can each have our own say for 5 mins or so. /amazingly this was about the first book that had a range of opinions – generally like it but a few people who didn”t. All the other books were a clear “like” or “don’t like” fairly unanimous. It’s actually a really good range of people discussing and its a good evening.

For myself, I really struggled to get into it, it felt like an East European dirge but then I got going and quite enjoyed it and didn’t really want it to end. It wasn’t that hard a read and the way it entwined almost like 3 or 4 parallel stories that didn’t quite join up, did make it interesting.

From The New York Times:

A Mythic Novel of the Balkan Wars

Think back to the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, with their profusion of names that are difficult to pronounce and acts that are painful to recall: the massacres at Brcko and Srebrenica, the bombing of bread lines in Sarajevo, the destruction of Mostar’s 400-year-old bridge.

None of these appear in Téa Obreht’s first novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” yet in its pages she brings their historic and human context to luminous life. With fables and allegories, as well as events borrowed from the headlines, she illustrates the complexities of Balkan history, unearthing patterns of suspicion, superstition and everyday violence that pervade the region even in times of peace. Reaching back to World War II, and then to wars that came before, she reveals the continuity beneath the clangor.

A metaphor for the author’s achievement can be found in her tale of Luka, a dreamy, brooding butcher’s son from a mountain village called Galina. A decade after World War I, Luka leaves Galina and walks 300 miles to the river port of Sarobor, where he hopes to master the gusla, a single-stringed Balkan folk instrument. Arriving there, he finds that gusla music is nearly forgotten, overtaken by rollicking modern tunes played by lusty, boisterous bands. Still, he seeks out old men who know the traditional songs, falls under the spell of the “throbbing wail of their voices winding through tales remembered or invented” and acquires their art. Although his gift is for lyrics rather than music, “there are those who say that any man who heard Luka play the gusla, even in wordless melody, was immediately moved to tears.” When a woman asks why he doesn’t prefer an instrument with a greater number of strings, he responds, “Fifty strings sing one song, but this single string knows a thousand stories.”

From The Guardian:

In the surreal and yet all-too-real opening scene of Emir Kusturica’s 1995 film Underground, the Nazis bomb Belgrade zoo, causing the panicked animals to run for their lives. And it is during this same raid that the tiger of Téa Obreht’s debut novel escapes to the hills above the fictional village of Galina.

This was 60 years ago, the narrator Natalia tells us, but the complicated story of what happened to the tiger and the people of Galina lives on. It’s now rekindled by the death of Natalia’s beloved grandfather. He was a native of Galina and just a boy when the tiger appeared. The key to her grandfather’s life and death “lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man”.

Natalia has followed in her grandfather’s steps and become a doctor in “the City”. On hearing of his death, she takes us on a labyrinthine journey to investigate. He has been her constant companion – their weekly visit to the city zoo was a ritual. A humanist schooled in the old tradition, he remained loyal to his patients even after he was expelled from the university for political reasons. He never parted with his copy of The Jungle Book, not even when a mysterious stranger dubbed “the deathless man” won it in a bet to prove his immortality to the rational doctor.

The deathless man is presented as a key piece in the puzzle, along with the bear-man, the tormented butcher-musician, his long-suffering and deaf Muslim wife who becomes the tiger’s wife for reasons too complicated to explain here, and a whole menagerie of other rural Balkan curiosities whose stories are embroidered by a collective genius of superstition. The brilliant black comedy and matryoshka-style narrative are among the novel’s great joys. But they are also one of the problems: after meeting innumerable exotic characters, it dawned on me that the back-stories stand in for a story, and style stands in for emotion.

Obreht’s imagination is seductively extravagant and prone to folkloric hyperbole, and this makes parts of the novel read like a picaresque romp through some enchanted Balkan kingdom, rife with magic, murder and mayhem. Who cares, it’s all a fable about a war – no, several wars – in some unnamed land. No real places or persons are named: Tito is “the Marshall”, Belgrade is “the City”, and we are in “a Balkan country still scarred by war”.

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