The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

As you may know, the winner of the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction will be announced on 8th June. I’ve read three of the six books from this year’s shortlist but I’ve been so far behind with my reviews this year that I haven’t yet posted on any of them – even though it’s now been a while since I finished reading them. I’m beginning to catch up now so hopefully I’ll be posting my thoughts on all three books this week. As for the other three shortlisted books, I would still like to read them eventually.

The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht’s first novel, was one of the Orange titles I was most looking forward to reading and although I did enjoy it, I felt that it didn’t quite fulfil its promise. There were parts of the book that I loved, but I thought the story was made up of too many separate elements that in my opinion never really came together as a whole.

Set in an unnamed Balkan nation, The Tiger’s Wife is an unusual mixture of myth, magic and reality. The main thread of the story follows Natalia, a doctor who is on a goodwill mission to inoculate the children at an orphanage in the fictional town of Brejevina. When Natalia discovers that her beloved grandfather has died, not at home with her grandmother as might be expected, but in a village not far from the orphanage where she is headed, she decides to investigate and find out what he was doing there.

Interspersed with Natalia’s story are accounts of important events in her grandfather’s life and some of the Balkan folk-tales she remembers him telling her. One of these is the story of an escaped tiger living near a remote village in the mountains and a young deaf-mute woman said to be the tiger’s wife; another involves Darisa the bear hunter. I particularly enjoyed reading about the grandfather’s encounters with the ‘deathless man’, a mysterious individual who can predict the deaths of other people without ever dying himself. However, some of these tales were so long and involved that by the time we returned to the present day storyline I found it difficult to pick up where we had left off. And to be honest, I found Natalia’s grandfather and his magical stories a lot more interesting than the character of Natalia herself.

Although the country in which the book is set is never named and any towns and villages that are mentioned are fictional, it’s not difficult to tell that we’re reading about the former Yugoslavia. The city in which Natalia lives is referred to only as ‘The City’ but is probably Belgrade. But despite the anonymity of the setting, Obreht still conveys a great sense of place through her wonderfully descriptive writing.

I can see why this book has been getting so many accolades, but for me, I think it may have been a little bit too ambitious and the disjointed structure of the book stopped me from loving it as much as I had hoped to. The ending of the book left me feeling confused and with the impression that all the separate threads of the story hadn’t been adequately pulled together. If only the author could have found a way to weave the various parts of the novel into a more coherent story The Tiger’s Wife had the potential to be an excellent book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Téa Obreht does next.

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4 thoughts on “The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht”

  1. Pretty much my sentiments exactly, Helen. In fact, I haven’t got to the end yet and keep reading other books inbetween and the more I do that the more interest I lose. I loved some of it, but only some of it and not enough for me to care to get to the end. Or should I?

    1. It’s good to know someone agrees with me! I don’t think you’d be missing much by not finishing it, though who knows – you might find the ending more satisfying than I did.

  2. I actually really loved the opening and closing pages of this novel; if the middle had struck me the same way, I’d’ve been adding it to my list of favourites for the year.

    1. I loved the beginning too, but by the end I had started to lose interest. I did enjoy the book overall – I just thought it had the potential to be better.

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