I have a co-worker who reads a TON of fiction. (You think I read a lot of stuff, I’m nothing compared to this guy.) A few years ago he raved about a novel with the odd title of The Tiger’s Wife. Probably because of that unusual title, it stuck in my memory. As my curiosity grew, I read a few reviews of The Tiger’s Wife and learned the setting for Téa Obreht’s 2011 novel is somewhere in the former Yugoslavia. Realizing I might be able to read it as part of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, I vowed to give the book a shot, should I ever come across a copy at my local public library. Then recently, during a one of those weekend library visits I spotted several copies of The Tiger’s Wife. Taking a chance, I grabbed one. Looking back, I think I did the right thing. For a young writer’s first novel, it ain’t too shabby.
Because of the novel’s rather complex nature, the plot isn’t easy to briefly summarize. But for convenience sake, The Tiger’s Wife tells the story of a young doctor somewhere in the former Yugoslavia who’s forced to reflect on her lifelong relationship with her grandfather. Out of that reflection comes a dreamlike story weaving accounts of love, loss, war, politics and family.
The Tiger’s Wife intrigued me in a number of ways. One, as I mentioned earlier, it’s set somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, but the identity of the former republic is never revealed. (My guess is it’s Serbia, but I could be wrong.) Obreht’s choice to keep the locale nameless, and therefore a little mysterious (same literary technique Matthew Olshan employed for his possibly set in Iraq novel Marshland) seems like the right one for a novel with a magical realist feel to it. Two, speaking of magical realism, by blending more objective storytelling with legend and fantasy-like elements, The Tiger’s Wife feels like something from the pen of Garcia Marquez. Thirdly, my inner historian enjoyed how the narrative shifted across history, ranging from the Ottoman Empire to World War II to the 90s Balkan conflicts to the present and back again. But what I liked the most about The Tiger’s Wife is its depth. Specifically, the depth of those legends and the characters’ personal histories.
It looks like many readers had problems with the novel’s sometimes disjointed structure. To be fair, I did find The Tiger’s Wife a bit challenging at times. However, for all the reasons mentioned in the above paragraph, I did not walk away from Obreht’s novel disappointed. And let’s all remember this is Obreht’s first novel. My guess is even her biggest critics admit her novel is full of promise. Looking to the future, I fully expect great things from this gifted young novelist.