Last Thursday I sat down at my desk to write a Literary Bite and COULD NOT remember the book I’d just read. As in, my mind was totally completely and utterly blank (a rare occurrence for me) – I knew I’d read something, but could not remember what. This bothered me. Am I losing my mind? Am I getting dumber? I'd just spent 300+ pages reading about something and I could not remember what that something was…
Welp, when I got home I saw the book and it all came back to me: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. You’ve probably seen it around, it was published in 2011, is a NYT Bestseller, won the Orange Prize, and is Obreht’s first novel.
Despite the fact that I couldn’t remember reading it, I did mostly like The Tiger’s Wife. It's is set in an unnamed country in the Balkans, with the main story taking place in the 1990s, and also parts going back to the 1940s (or around that time I think). Obreht summarized the novel as “a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans."
The tiger’s wife part is almost a side story – just one of many folktales that Obreht weaves into her narrative – but I liked it the best. The narrator’s grandfather lived in a village in the mountains where an escaped zoo tiger kind of sort of befriends a deaf mute abused child-bride (are you confused yet?)…or I suppose it’s more the other way around…
Death and how people deal with it is a major theme through the book. This conversation between the narrator and her grandfather stuck with me:
- "When men die, they die in fear", he said. "They take everything they need from you, and as a doctor it is your job to give it, to comfort them, to hold their hand. But children die how they have been living - in hope. They don't know what's happening, so they expect nothing, they don't ask you to hold their hand - but you end up needing them to hold yours. With children, you're on your own. Do you understand?"
This book was a bit challenging to me because the wars in the Balkans are one thing I know close to nothing about. If I had more historical context in my mind, maybe I would have enjoyed it more? Though I suppose part of the charm of her writing is that you don’t really NEED historical context…Obreht actually goes out of her way to place the story outside history by omitting locations and dates.
This bothered me until I read the author’s interview at the back of the book, where she explained that she likes to read books where a lot is left to the reader’s imagination – as in she doesn’t believe in tying up all the loose ends. Also, she wanted the story to feel more universal, like it could be happening in any country anywhere, not JUST in the Balkans.
I prefer the ends to be tied up, but I can appreciate where she’s coming from! I recommend reading the interview in the back of the book, possibly before reading the book itself.
Read an excerpt here.
And the NYT review.