Tag Archives: Orange Prize

The Tiger’s Wife (2011) – Téa OBRECHT

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.

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Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) – Chimamanda Ngozi ADICHIE

Perhaps I’m just becoming more cynical in my old(er) age, but I think a lot of people read novels like this one for one of two reasons: they feel they should, because it’s written by an African woman; or because they think they’ll get brownie points for reading something as exotic as an African woman writer. And knowing that this book was quite popular when it came out, I was expecting a good, but not great novel, about how hard it is to be a woman in Africa. Basically, I was expecting something not covering any new ground. Turns out I was way off.

Civil war is brewing in Nigeria. It is the 1960s, and southern separatists are wanting to secede, and start afresh. Ugwu is starting a new job as a houseboy. Olanna is moving in with her partner, both lecturers at a university. And Richard has come from deepest, darkest England to Nigeria to report. As the political and social situation in the country deteriorates, these three very ordinary people are caught up in a war that will change their lives forever.

Adichie’s portrayal of Africa is refreshingly unique. We are not subjected here to dismal descriptions of the slums of Nigeria, of the hordes of people suffering from HIV/AIDS, or from repression from the white colonial powers. Here, we get middle class Nigeria, full of intelligent, witty people, who are truly trying to make their country better. And this is the Africa that we just don’t see often enough, whether in the news or in literature. Of course these things happen – Africa is a troubled continent. But for Adichie, who was brought up in Nigeria by middle class parents, but university educated in America, this is just as much “the real Africa” as any other experience.

Indeed, this novel isn’t even really about the Nigerian civil war. It is, of course, an ever present menace, particularly in the latter stages of the novel, but I don’t think the focus is there. The focus is on what people do when forced to make difficult situations, when their comfortable, everyday lives are stripped from them, and they have to fend for themselves. Of the three main voices, it is Olanna who struggles the most with this upheaval. But it’s not just the war that’s affecting her – it’s her husband’s infidelity, and indeed, her own. It is the human relationships that maintain focus here, not the war.

This is not to say that the war is sidelined in favour of crappy soap-opera style adultery among the cast. For someone like me who has no background in African history, there is an interesting lesson to be learned here. Nigeria, like so many of the postcolonial, created countries of Africa, has internal conflict brought about by several different tribal groups being forced to coexist. And the civil war that is borne out of it, that is the subject of Half of a Yellow Sun, is an important part of history, and one that should be investigated and discovered by people who aren’t Nigerian.

The spectre of colonial power is not as strong as one might find in other African literature. The only white character, Richard, is not what you would call a cultural imperialist. He is deeply empathetic, to both individual people, as well as the Biafran cause itself. His subtle rejections of white African society, and his eventual willingness to be identified as Biafran, are portrayed here as kind. He is not a strong man; instead, he is a frustrated writer, a passive man who goes with the flow, yet there is strength underneath. Above all, he is fallible, and his own infidelity is something that also shapes the way these characters deal with the war.

For a long time, I think, Western readers’ views of African literature have been too closed-minded. Whose fault this is, I don’t know – the publishers for not publishing things that can’t be easily marketed as “African literature”, or the readers who simply read these things because they feel they should. Don’t read Half of a Yellow Sun because you want to read an “African novel”. If I say it’s much more than that, be aware I’m not trying to put down the vast numbers of African novels that have come before it, and done so much to educate us. But this is, hopefully, the beginning of a new kind of African novel – where people deal with situations that are not necessarily uniquely African, but more universal.

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