The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

It has been over a year since my last post, but not over a year since I’ve read a novel!!  Time and life have gotten away from me.  But the book I stayed up last night to finish has forced me to take some time out of my holiday in order to share the sheer beauty of an artfully crafted tale.

Tea Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia, but spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt.  She immigrated to the US in her teens.  The Tiger’s Wife, published in 2011, is her debut novel.  (As of yet, a sophomore attempt has not been published.)  For a young writer, Obreht has scores of accolades already and, based on The Tiger’s Wife alone, she is well-deserving of every bit of praise.

The Tiger’s Wife sparkles with a magic that an author cannot learn – it has to be in your soul, and Obreht’s soul was pulsating.  The relationship she crafts between Natalia and her grandfather creates an easy pathway between family lore, magic, and the present.

“In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.  He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress.  It is autumn, and I am four years old.  The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park.  Always in my grandfather’s breastpocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and yellow pages.  I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon while he recites passages to me.”

And so begins a story that is just as much Natalia’s as it is her grandfather’s.  Obreht cleverly weaves in and out of the present, juxtaposing stories passed down by Natalia’s grandfather with the present – stories that are full of magic and horror, love and loss.  The tiger’s wife, the deaf-mute who earned her rightful place as the namesake for the novel, has a story most beautiful and tragic.  Natalia’s grandfather’s memory of her, a memory of his youth, is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.  A talented man whose closeted homosexuality and family obligations create a monster of a husband when all his hopes and dreams are shattered by his father.  A lost tiger in the war who finds love and sanctuary with a deaf-mute who was never the intended.  Cowards of men who fear the tiger and so seek to destroy.  A man made bear by legend.  A man, the nephew of Death, who could not die and travels throughout the story without aging, taking souls to his uncle in the hopes that he will one day be free.  An elephant led through the city in the magic of the night.  The breaking of a coffee cup.  Cheating death.  The magic of The Jungle Book.  A war torn zoo.  Animals turning on themselves and each other under the wail of sirens during air raids.  Teenage rebellion during a war.  Stolen skulls and lungs.  Forty days.  A war torn country where neighbors, family members suddenly become “the other” and sides must be chosen.  A tiger who hasn’t been seen in years, but who is always there.

Natalia is defined by her grandfather’s life and stories, as such, the tiger’s wife is just as much a part of her.  Even after her grandfather goes to meet Death like the old friend he is, the tiger is still there.

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