Ten women gathered in my living room, ready to discuss our book clubâ€™s choice, â€śThe Tigerâ€™s Wife,â€ť the exalted first novel of TĂ©a Obreht. This 26-year-old Yugoslavian-born writer topped recent lists of best writers under 40, and her novel is on the best books of 2011 lists in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Oprah Magazine and The Economist, to name a few.
We were unnaturally quiet taking our seats, sheepish almost in our discomfort to begin this discussion. Soon the truth revealed itself. All 10 of us hesitated being at such odds with the reviewers, but we simply did not like the book. Yes, we agreed, the writing is often beautiful â€” unbelievably rich for a writer her age â€” but the structure of the book makes it frequently tedious and often confounding. There is a lot of promise as the novel opens, but it is never satisfied.
The narrative is built on the framework of a modern day story in an unnamed Eastern European country resembling Obrehtâ€™s childhood Yugoslavia. Natalia, a young doctor is on her way to voluntarily administer vaccines to orphans in a small town when she learns of the death of her beloved grandfather who left his home to die. Wanting to understand more about the puzzling circumstances of his death, she goes to pick up his belongings and reflects on childhood memories of their daily visits to the city zoo and the wisdom she gleaned from him.
Within and around the story of Nataliaâ€™s journey, Obreht weaves two mythical tales narrated by the grandfather. In one storyline, he comes upon a deathless man, one time sitting up in his coffin with bullet wounds and another time locked in an underground cell. The amiable fellow is frustrated that the grandfather cannot believe he will not die.
In another tale, a deaf-mute girl is given in marriage to a man when her sister whom he was about to marry ran off with another man. Her new husband abuses her brutally. At first the townspeople look at her with pity, but when she befriends a tiger that is loose in the hills she becomes an abomination â€” â€śthe wife of the tiger,â€ť they call her.
Obrehtâ€™s talents are displayed in the dark, unsettling feeling she creates about war throughout the story. She tells an interviewer she did not want to give specifics about the time and place of conflict but merely to convey the essence of war and its long-lasting effects on a people and a place. Families dig for the remains of loved ones lost years before, bombs blast homes into the ground and neighbors are separated by new borders.
â€śThe war had altered everything,â€ť she writes. â€śOnce separate, the pieces that make up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics … landmarks, writers, scientists, histories had to be doled out according to their new owners.â€ť
I view â€śThe Tigerâ€™s Wifeâ€ť as an overly ambitious first novel of a talented young writer we will be hearing a lot more from.
Read more from Betty Hafner at www.bettyhafner.com/.