Thursday, July 5, 2012

Book Review: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

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Title: The Tiger's Wife
Author: Tea Obreht
Publisher: Random House
Hardcover: 338 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor living (and, in between suspensions, practicing) in an unnamed country that's a ringer for Obreht's native Croatia, crosses the border in search of answers about the death of her beloved grandfather, who raised her on tales from the village he grew up in, and where, following German bombardment in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo in a nearby city and befriended a mysterious deaf-mute woman. The evolving story of the tiger's wife, as the deaf-mute becomes known, forms one of three strands that sustain the novel, the other two being Natalia's efforts to care for orphans and a wayward family who, to lift a curse, are searching for the bones of a long-dead relative; and several of her grandfather's stories about Gavran Gailé, the deathless man, whose appearances coincide with catastrophe and who may hold the key to all the stories that ensnare Natalia.

Overall Rating: 3/5

The Tiger's Wife is about Natalia, a doctor whose grandfather has just died. While immunizing and caring for orphans, Natalia goes through the stories of her grandfather's past, taking the reader on a journey through one man's life. This novel largely deals with the themes of death and superstition and how they intertwine.

I liked the way this novel is told. There is a huge difference between past and present. Natalia is working with people who live in a rural setting; they don't have much in the way of technology or city-life, so superstition and folk tales control their lives. However, while the present is filled with superstition, the past turns that superstition into a sort of magical realism. In the stories about her grandfather's past, the superstitions and fables become real. This, I think, perfectly represents our relationship with the past. We can never perfectly remember past events, and when we're hearing them second-hand, especially decades after they've happened, they take on a vague, magical quality that makes them very distant and surreal.

I would have liked more of an actual plot, however. Although the book is titled after a death-mute woman from her grandfather's home village who tames a tiger, there was nothing to really connect that to Natalia's story. That disappointed me. For much of this book, there was nothing to really connect the past to the present, and I would have liked that closure. Instead of a novel, this read more like a short story cycle. Different characters have their different stories, but the many of the connections are loose at best, and The Tiger's Wife is largely a collection of stories form the past. A short story cycle would have worked better, because while a theme (death) connected it all together, a concrete plot did not, and I expect a solid plot from a novel. 

Despite that, the writing is lovely, and I enjoyed reading it. The detailed descriptions offset the magical qualities of the stories, and I loved how Obreht spent her time giving each character a complex backstory, making them come to life and enriching each story.

This is a great debut novel that intelligently deals with complex themes and ideas. I am looking forward to see what Obreht will come out with next.

*I received a copy from Goodreads First Reads in exchange for my honest review.*