The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger’s Wife

by Téa Obreht

Published by Random House

352 pages, 2011






The Heart of the Tiger

Reviewed by David Abrams

As a writer, I should hate Téa Obreht. She’s 25, earned a coveted spot on The New Yorker’s bally-hooed “20 Under 40” list of hot young writers, and has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and Zoetrope: All-Story -- all in the time that most of us are still learning how to form coherent sentences. What’s more, she can write circles around me in her sleep. I should hate her, but it’s impossible not to love what she has delivered in The Tiger’s Wife, an impressive novel by any standards -- no matter the age or career-longevity of the author.

Non-writer readers, those who are blithely ignorant of the hard work of carving words from recalcitrant language and sculpting them into something as poised and confident as Obreht’s debut, will just appreciate the novel for what it’s meant to be: damned fine storytelling.

It is told with such confidence and mastery of the novel’s form that it belies the age of its creator.

If I handed you a copy of The Tiger’s Wife without telling you any backstory about the author, and I snipped out Obreht’s photo from the flap jacket, and rubbed out her biography with a black magic marker, you would read the book and hand it back to me swearing that the person who wrote this astounding narrative was a seasoned veteran -- someone on the prolific, talented level of Joyce Carol Oates or William Trevor or Charles Baxter -- and then your mouth would predictably fall open in disbelief when I shared the truth.

The Tiger’s Wife is a good case study in that age-old debate about separating the artist from the artwork (i.e., Can we appreciate John Cheever’s short fiction for what it is, setting aside his behavior as a father and husband? Or, once upon a time, could we still groove to Michael Jackson’s music and ignore the rumors coming from Neverland?). Given all the marketing noise buzzing around Téa Obreht (and I know I’m a loud contributor to that very huzzah), it’s important to stop our ears and focus on the contents of the page.

That’s easy because the assured strength of the prose pulls you right inside. As The Tiger’s Wife opens, Natalia, a young doctor working in an unnamed Balkan country, learns of the death of her grandfather, a distinguished doctor himself who was forced out of his practice by ethnic politics. When he died, the grandfather was far from home on a secretive journey to a remote town. Natalia makes it her goal to learn the truth about her grandfather’s fate and in so doing, she unleashes a flood of memories -- most of them involving her family’s patriarch who was her closest friend when she was a young girl, taking her on long walks and repeated visits to the zoo. Natalia, who is working on a humanitarian mission of her own to deliver medicine to an orphange, begins to recall the stories her grandfather would tell about a certain “deathless man” named Gavran Gaile who never seemed to age but who always shows up just before a person’s death.

She also remembers the days when they would visit the tigers’ cage at the zoo, and he would read to her from the well-worn copy of The Jungle Book which he always carried in his coat pocket. The tigers, it seemed, held a deep-seated fascination for her grandfather.

The tigers live in the outer moat of the fortress. We climb the castle stairs, past the waterbirds and the sweating windows of the monkey house, past the wolf growing his winter coat. We pass the bearded vultures and then the bears, asleep all day, smelling of damp earth and the death of something. My grandfather picks me up and props my feet against the handrail so I can look down and see the tigers in the moat. My grandfather never refers to the tiger’s wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself -- and will, for years and years.

But he is not talking about Natalia; he is traveling back many decades through his own memories to the time when he was a boy in a remote mountain village, barricaded with snow more months of the year than not, and populated with residents who lived their lives according to superstition and fear. He is remembering a mysterious deaf-mute girl (a Muslim teenager with “big eyes and a quiet gait”) married to the town’s abusive butcher. He is recalling when, at the outbreak of World War Two, a tiger escaped from the city zoo, came to live on the slopes above the village, and gradually formed a bond with the butcher’s young wife.

Obreht tells the story of the “tiger’s wife” bit by alluring bit over the course of the book. Through the eyes of the grandfather as a boy, we learn how the tiger gave the young Muslim bride confidence and power, and we learn how the frightened villagers eventually came to regard her as a witch, believing the tiger shed his skin each night he paid her a visit. These are the kind of people, Obreht writes, “with small ailments and terrible fears, because everything they do not understand frightens them.” And yet, as she unspools the story, we find there is a mysterious love between beast and beauty:

…nightfall, hours of silence, and then, quiet as a river, the tiger coming down from the hills, dragging with him that sour, heavy smell, snow dewing on his ears and back. And then, for hours by the fireside, comfort and warmth—the girl leaning against his side and combing the burs and tree sap out of the tiger’s fur while the big cat lay, broad-backed and rumbling, red tongue peeling the cold out of his paws.

Natalia remembers other stories from her grandfather as well: the tale of the taxidermist who might or might not have turned into a bear, the shattering heartbreak of a musician who eventually became a butcher, and the haunting story of the “deathless man,” a figure who holds the key to Obreht’s entire book. Later, Natalia tells us:

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life—of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.

The novel is divided into chapters with headings that evoke fables: “The Bear,” “The Apothecary,” “The Heart,” and so on. Obreht has paid special attention to the structure of the book and, indeed, the way a story is built. Every truss is carefully set in place, the floorboards are squared and true, each nail is pounded into place with the strongest, surest blows. The sentences in and of themselves are miniature works of art and you keep thinking each one is greater than the one before and she could never top herself. And yet, she does. Just look at the beauty Obreht packs into the short space of this one sentence: “It was late afternoon when they came across the tiger in a clearing by a frozen pond, bright and real, carved from sunlight.”

The heart of The Tiger’s Wife, however, is how the human race deals with death, grief, and war. Though Natalia aches for her dead grandfather, as she unpeels the many layers of his past, she learns that the afterlife carries its own sense of wonder and hope. “Dying is not punishment,” the deathless man once told her grandfather. “The dead are celebrated. The dead are loved. They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.”

The Tiger’s Wife is so majestic in its telling, you almost don’t hear the the morality whispering past your ears. But the philosophical foundation of the book is strong and only serves to deepen Obreht’s strength as a storyteller.

Layered in myth, memory and folklore, this novel is one of those rare books which are full-immersion experiences. Long before thirty pages have passed, The Tiger’s Wife ceases to be a book; it becomes a door to a world which we eagerly revisit with frequent trips to the page. Reading The Tiger’s Wife, it is as if we were transported to an age before electricity when storytellers mesmerized listeners with spell-binding tales told in a half-circle around a fireside. We hang on every word, our mouths slowly falling agape as the light of flame licks our faces and whole worlds are built with words inside our imaginations—worlds full of undead men thirsting for water, snowbound villagers ruled by superstition, zoo animals walking the streets of cities, and magical women who lay with tigers. | April 2011

David Abrams' stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, The Greensboro Review, Connecticut Review and several other publications. He regularly blogs about the literary life at The Quivering Pen.