It is not often that I feel the simultaneous urge to both read a book at a voracious pace and discontinue reading it altogether. The Tiger’s Wife may be the first. This seeming paradox was achieved by Obreht’s beautiful writing and the intriguing story she creates, coupled with the intense and disturbing violence riddled throughout the novel. I actually had to skim a few sections – something I can’t recall ever doing in a novel. Luckily Obreht’s main character, Natalia, was someone I connected with immediately. Natalia is a young doctor, trying to inoculate young children in a war-torn region. The story takes place in an unnamed country in the Balkans, but through the various descriptions and invented place-names, images of Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo come to mind. I liked that Obreht chose a fictional place for her novel; there was never any pressure to read up on the history, culture, geography of the place, since it didn’t exist (I often feel this urge when I’m reading about a place I’m not familiar with). All you need is a passing knowledge of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and actually, you could probably get away with not knowing anything at all.The main crux of the story is that Natalia’s grandfather turns up dead in a remote town and no one knows how he got there or why he was there in the first place. About a third of the book centres around Natalia trying to figure out this mystery; the other two-thirds are comprised mainly of Natalia recalling some of the stories her grandfather often told her. I’m not one for a story-within-a-story. Normally I find it a fairly annoying format. However the two major stories, that of The Deathless Man and The Tiger’s Wife, are so interesting and wrapped in a good layer of magical realism, that I became completely absorbed in them. Obreht manages to create a very dark world but also one that is mystical and bordering on the absurd. It’s hauntingly beautiful. Except for the violence. It’s hard to ignore the violence. As a vegetarian I didn’t particularly enjoy the graphic descriptions of animals being butchered and their bodies cut apart. But the worst by far were the terribly brutal scenes of a young deaf-mute girl being beaten by her husband. I could only get through it by skimming. I guess the violence – both animal and human – are meant to represent the savageness of war and what years of conflict can do to a people. I appreciate the point of the violence, I just didn’t enjoy reading it. However if you can make it past those difficult sections, you are rewarded with a well-crafted story and very high-quality writing.
As an aside, Obreht was only 25 years old when this novel was published. It’s astonishing that a 25-year-old could write something so sophisticated, dark, and teeming with wisdom. I don’t know who to be more jealous of: Téa Obreht or Eleanor Catton. Sigh.