John Wilwol reviews Tea Obreht’s new novel, The Tiger’s Wife, which vibrates with the low rumble of unanswered and unanswerable questions that keeps us up at night.
It feels weird to think that a 25-year-old novelist could have all that much to lose in a debut. But here comes Téa Obreht, with a portfolio of short stories that landed in places like The New Yorker and The Atlantic in one hand, and her first novel The Tiger’s Wife from publishing giant Random House, complete with blurbs from heavyweights like Anne Patchett, T.C. Boyle, and Colum McCann, in the other.
Certainly, the novel will have a detractor or two. They’ll ding it for the brief moments where the narrative feels like it overpowers Obreht. Or, perhaps, they’ll pick on the ending, which might leave a few less than satisfied. But The Tiger’s Wife is an elaborate, haunting work that deserves to be ranked at least alongside other great debuts like Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
It might even prove to be better than that. Rather than tackling issues of the moment in an experimental or innovative way, Obreht’s style in The Tiger’s Wife is a bit of a throwback – way back. Her sentences are rich and long, and her natural world is still a place where magic still very much exists. Others have pegged this as Magical Realism, but it’s really capital-R Romantic or even Gothic. Couple these elements with the timelessness of the issues Obreht goes after – war, death, family, faith – and this could be a work that ends up being read, and re-read, for a long time.
The Tiger’s Wife is like a layer cake. There are three big story lines, and Obreht uses the characters within them as doors through which to pass us into smaller stories. Sometimes, her intent in these digressions is obvious, like when we learn more about a character’s past. At others, the purpose for her move away from the main thrust of the novel is more subtle, but it all works. Like Scheherazade, Obreht’s ability to tell a story is intoxicating, and with each tale we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the heart of the world she has created.
The framing narrative gives us Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor working in an unnamed Balkan country recovering from war. While on her way to inoculate children at an orphanage, Natalia learns in a phone call from her grandmother that her beloved grandfather has mysteriously died in a strange town to which he has no connection. Unlike her grandmother, Natalia knew he was sick. But she’s puzzled by the fact of his leaving home. As she continues on her mission to the orphanage, she struggles to make sense of it all, and Obreht launches us into the other two big stories, both of which are so rich that it’s easy to imagine Obreht having turned them into books of their own.“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife and the story of the deathless man,” Natalia tells us. The deathless man emerges through a story that Natalia tells about a special night she shared with her grandfather during the war. Late one night, the two witness something magical on the streets of their hometown, and Natalia’s grandfather tells her they must keep it secret, because while the story of the war belongs to everyone, the story of this incident belongs only to them. Natalia asks if he has other stories like that, and Obreht introduces Gavran Gailé, the deathless man, who is an eerie cross between the Grim Reaper and a less-cruel version of Twain’s Satan in The Mysterious Stranger. Gailé, who reads tea-leaves to sort out the fates of those he meets, both shocks and fascinates Natalia’s grandfather, and she goes on to tell us about the times they met, again and again, throughout his grandfather’s life.
The story of the tiger’s wife, which was adapted for The New Yorker, is set in the village of Galina, where Natalia’s grandfather grew up. One day, a tiger is spotted on a ridge near the village, striking terror into the hearts of Galina’s inhabitants and capturing the imagination of Natalia’s grandfather. In Galina, there is a butcher, Luka, whose wife is a deaf mute. Luka is afflicted by a murderous temper and violently abuses his wife, going so far as to force her hands onto a hot range in one instance and doing much worse in others. Eventually, Luka’s wife courts the tiger by luring it with meat down to the smokehouse, and Luka disappears.
Obreht shines most brightly in the tiger’s wife narrative. Galina and its people emerge vividly, and she fills in all of the characters who informed Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood there. We learn about the apothecary, who gave him his prized copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and about Dariša the Bear, a taxidermist who comes to hunt the tiger. We learn more about Luka, the butcher who initially emerges as so vile a monster. Miraculously, Obreht finds a way to balance Luka out through a story that makes your heart ache for the broken world in which we live, while somehow not dismissing his abuse of his helpless wife.
In the end, Obreht doesn’t tie up all of these threads, or the novel, in a definitive way. We’re never quite sure what happens to the tiger, or to Luka, or Gavran Gailé. But ambiguity is part of her intention in all this. After all, it’s the low rumble of unanswered and unanswerable questions that keeps us up at night and with which the The Tiger’s Wife vibrates.
Read The Rumpus Interview with Téa Obreht by John Wilwol.