Monday, June 13, 2011


The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht

Publisher: Random House

Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife has now chalked up another award. She is the youngest winner of the UK’s coveted Orange prize for fiction and has published stories in the New Yorker, and the Atlantic Monthly. In The Tiger's Wife she has taken what she knows of superstition and storytelling and built it into an award wining novel.

According to various sources, the first seven years of her life, were spent in Belgrade, and from all accounts were steeped in superstition and storytelling. She lived with her mother and maternal grandparents, and her life was filled with such things as never making a gift of an empty wallet. She has cleverly woven these experiences into her story.

When civil war erupted in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Obreht and her family moved to Cyprus, and Egypt, and then settled in California when she was age 12. She entered college at age 16. She says that” getting rid of her superstitions has been difficult as she still knocks on wood , makes a spitting gesture at a baby, to ward off the devil and she still worries that if something wonderful happens, something awful is lurking around the corner.”

.The Tiger’s Wife is set in an unnamed part of the Balkans and pulses with myth and meaning, weaving together the story of the brutal butcher, Luka; the taxidermist, Dariša the Bear; and the group of diggers the narrator happens upon in a small village, who are searching for the body of a long-dead cousin, spades propelled along to a chorus of "wash the bones, bring the body, leave the heart behind". The narrator is a young doctor called Natalia Stefanovi, who learns of her grandfather's unexpected death while on a trip with her best friend, Zóra, to administer inoculations to orphaned children. The news of this death in the family leads her to relate the two stories that "run like secret rivers" through her grandfather's life, those of the tiger's wife and the deathless man.

Obreht began writing the novel at age 21, after the death of her grandfather. The novel began as a short story, which Obreht presented at a workshop at Cornell University, during her graduate study in writing. It was initially about a "young, deaf-mute circus performer who has a special bond with a tiger, and whose mother, or grandmother, tries to whore her out to the people of a small village.” She continued to revise and develop the story ending with only a paragraph about a tiger, which drew on her childhood experiences of visiting Belgrade Zoo with her grandfather. In the first chapter of her novel, the narrator sees a caged tiger maul a zoo worker, a prelude to the story of the tiger who creeps through her grandfather's life, an escapee from a zoo bombed by the Nazis in 1941. This beast spends months living in swamps, "gnawing on decaying carcasses that drifted by, snatching frogs and salamanders along the creek bed. He had become a host for leeches, and dozens of them stood like eyes in the fur of his legs and side." Her grandfather is just a boy when the tiger arrives in his village, and it is only he and Luka's wife, a brutalized deaf-mute woman, who form a bond with it. The other villagers look on with terror, and deep suspicion. He carried a copy of The Jungle book. "I didn’t realize so much of The Tiger Wife’s emotional energy would end up bound to The Jungle Book: at first, it was a way for Natalia’s grandfather to know the tiger—and I mean “know” in the most basic sense, to be able to recognize and identify the tiger as being something like Shere Khan—but as the story and characters progressed, Kipling’s book became more and more significant, the only communicative link between the grandfather and the tiger, the grandfather and the tiger’s wife, and then the grandfather and Natalia."

 Toward the end of the novel, Obreht tells of an apothecary character who had learned that "when confounded by the extremes of life – whether good or bad – people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening. He learned that, no matter how grave the secret, how imperative absolute silence, someone would always feel the urge to confess, and an unleashed secret was a terrible force."

Ms. Obreht has said she was worried about writing the book. According to her she had never dealt with the Balkans in her writing, and was somewhat afraid of addressing the idea of death. The fact that she pushed forward despite her apprehension has paid off. She is one of the youngest ever of the New Yorker's  “Best New York Writers under 40.”


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