I need to start this review with a confession: I didn’t want to like The Tiger’s Wife. We have sold a huge number of copies of this book since it first came out, and eventually won the Orange Prize last year. Téa Obrecht is young, successful, attractive – I didn’t think I could bear it if she were actually talented as well. Sadly for me – fortunately for her – she is immensely talented, and this debut novel shows a writer of great promise.
A young doctor and her friend are travelling across the Balkans, treating people, where an uneasy peace has recently fallen. When Natalia receives word that her grandfather, a prominent doctor at the university has died, it triggers a search for his body, as well as memories of her time as a child, when her grandfather would take her to the city zoo, and tell her about the life and times of the tiger’s wife – a woman in his country village hometown.
Magical realism based on traditional folk tales can often walk the fine line between twee sentimentalism, and full blown fantasy. Fortunately, Obrecht has done it perfectly in the story of the Deathless Man, who may be my favourite character in the novel, and one of the all time greats. A man who appears throughout Natalia’s grandfather’s life, he seems to appear at moments of great importance. As it turns out, he is akin to Death himself, helping people with their passage out of this world, and as such, has a lot of time for doctors. Of course, the real trick to magical realism is trying to decipher what these symbols mean – who the Deathless Man really is – and I’m still not completely sure what it is he is supposed to represent, though I’m open to suggestions. Perhaps the fact that we first meet him in a church is significant? Is he the personification of religious faith in the Balkans? Does that even work?
The eponymous tiger’s wife, too, toes that line closely. A young girl in a remote Balkan village falls in love with a tiger that escaped from the city zoo. He is, perhaps understandably, immediately feared by the rest of the village, but it is the young girl who takes him in, wanders around the town with him. Subverting the classic fairytale idea that the forest is a dangerous place for young virginal girls, Obrecht shows us a forest and landscape that actually, in many ways, nurtures the young girl, giving her a sense of place and identity. Once she becomes pregnant with the tiger’s baby, the village is torn between helping her and leaving her to rot for the despicable deed she has done.
In direct opposition to these fantastical tales of her grandfather’s time, Natalia’s life in the modern land is far more dull and depressing. Dealing with people who don’t want her help because she is from the “other side” of the war, her frustration is clear to see. It is clear she wants to make a difference in a part of the world that clearly needs help, but when the people who need it refuse, it is difficult to convince them otherwise.
Though the spectre of folklore, tradition and legend looms large, even here. Perhaps as a way of dealing with the horrors that have befallen the landscape, many people in the country re turning to tradition as a way of comforting themselves for what they have witnessed. People resort to a kind of shamanism and spirituality far removed from the Big Three (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), and have reverted to more local, “pagan” traditions of ghosts, spirits, and dead people not staying dead. It’s not done with any sense of irony or judgement, though, which makes a pleasant change, even for someone as cynical about these things as myself. And there’s no sense of glorifying these quaint traditions as a direct attack on anyone else’s
Without ever becoming sentimental, Obrecht has drawn an Eastern Europe with a sense of danger, a sense of past, and perhaps above all, a sense of magic. It is a novel about storytelling and history – about the stories and folktales people tell each other to explain the inexplicable, or make sense of events that are simply incomprehensible. A solid, well-written debut.