Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Tiger's Wife

Last night, the Berkeley Heights Library Tuesday night book group discussed The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. All the readers enjoyed the book, but some found the multiple storylines and connections between characters confusing. Many plot points or mysteries remained unresolved in this book. Despite that confusion, the book group members decided not to 'overthink' the plot and meaning, but just enjoyed the folklore and stories that are told throughout the book.

The Tiger's Wife is the story of a young physician, Natalia, practicing in a city in an unidentified war-torn Balkan country in contemporary times. Natalia's first person account of her life is interspersed with accounts of the life of her grandfather, also a physician. Natalia writes,
" everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife and the story of the deathless man"

Natalia's grandfather meets Gavran Gaile, the Deathless Man, three times in his life, each time to discuss the rituals and superstitions surrounding death and the way people anticipate death. Each time, more is revealed about the Deathless Man. Gaile, a physician and the nephew of Death himself, has been given the ability to predict a patient's death. In an ironic twist, in retaliation for breaking the rules on this gift of prescience from his uncle, Gaile is doomed to never die. In his frustration with his immortality, he takes on the task of the 'mora' who gathers the souls of the newly departed at the crossroads.  In their last encounter, the grandfather and the immortal Gaile share an elaborate and elaborately described dinner served by a soon-to-die waiter, in an about to be destroyed city at the beginning of a war. The image of death with a sickle playing chess with the knight in Ingmar Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal', kept popping up in my mind's eye as I read these scenes. Shoving aside that iconic image and related parodies, I was determined to try to understand the story of the tiger's wife in order to further mine the meaning of the grandfather's life and the book as instructed by the author (see above quotation.)

When the grandfather was a child, during a previous war, a tiger escapes from a city zoo during the bombing and wanders around the countryside until it comes to the grandfather's village. A battered deaf-mute Muslim wife, an outcast in the Christian village, feeds and befriends the tiger. The superstitious villagers call her 'the Tiger's Wife' and believe she is pregnant with the tiger's child. The grandfather, as a child, befriends the woman and takes her food, but ultimately is the instrument of her death.

So there you have it, the story of the grandfather is bracketed by his encounters with an immortal gatherer of souls and his childhood witnessing of brutality by the group toward the outcast. To me, the book is a jumble of good writing; but thin characterization and relationships; multiple digressions for backstories as each character is introduced; many many animal stories; many colorful local myths and superstitions; a few allusions to complex Balkan history. All these interspersed stories are strung loosely together to form an impression of a region too familiar with war and death given its difficult history of invasions, ethnic and religious feuds, and untrustworthy political alliances. Finally the book's ending may or may not wrap things up to the satisfaction of all readers. I struggled with this book. Probably readers should read it twice or at least not hurry through it to meet a book group deadline. Or readers should just read, enjoy and get a general impression without digging too deep for answers.

Related websites for further reading:

This first novel by a very young author has received awards and great reviews and is now a favorite for book groups. For reactions of readers who are not book reviewers, take a look at the discussion on GoodReads

Tea Obreht's website
New York Times review of the Tiger's Wife 
Washington Post review of the Tiger's Wife

 Quote from the Deathless Man - "the greatest fear is that of uncertainty...have they [the patient] done enough, discovered their illness soon enough, consulted the worthiest physicians, consumed the best medicines, uttered the correct prayers?" (183)

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