Book Review: The Tiger’s Wife

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I like this cover

A few weeks ago I wrote about the certain specificity of not liking a book compared to the fuzzy amorphism of liking a book. When I don’t like a book, I can tell you exactly why, but when I like one, I’m often not quite sure what to say. So it is I sit here staring at a blank screen thinking about The Tiger’s Wife, by Tèa Obreht.

This is the 97th book I’ve read this year, and it made it onto my list because I’ve been seeing it in the bookstore, and it’s on the New York Times list of top ten books of 2011. I can already tell you that I don’t really see why Swamplandia was on there (I think it’s really just the alligators). So I was prepared for The Tiger’s Wife to be one of those novels that everyone else raves about, but leaves me kind of cold. Happily, I was wrong.

It’s present day in an unnamed Balkan country and Natalia, a young doctor, has just found out about her grandfather’s mysterious death. The answers to the mystery of his death lie both in the present where Natalia is across the new border giving medical aid to orphans, and in the stories of her grandfather’s past across multiple wars and the shifting contours of his country. Who is the deathless man her grandfather told her stories about? How might both her grandfather’s life and his death be connected to the fate of the tiger’s wife from his past?

Shortly before reading The Tiger’s Wife, I had started The City and The City, by China Mièville. I didn’t finish it, but it’s also set in another anonymous country “on the edge of Europe.” In this country, two cities occupy the same geographic territory but are separated by sheer force of psychic will. The residents of Beszel must “unsee” everything that is in the other city, Ul Qoma, though they share the same streets, blocks and even buildings. Obviously, The City and the City is a novel about the power of borders.

Borders play an important part in The Tiger’s Wife, as well. We are constantly reminded of where towns and cities and even vineyards used to be before and after various rearrangements of borders. At one point in the story, Natalia’s grandfather is interrogated as to his exact origins, as suddenly where you are from in relation to these shifting borders has become important. In the present, Natalia spends a great deal of time crossing borders and being reminded of which side of the border she is from.

And then there are the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, two stories that are rooted in superstition and the way in which small fears can become large dangers. You should stop here if you don’t want to know any more about this novel. The deathless man, according to Natalia’s grandfather, is not Death himself, but Death’s nephew. He is cursed to never die, but he can tell foretell the death of others with, of all things, a coffee cup. He shows up periodically in the grandfather’s life whenever death is rampant, and in this worn-torn country, death appears to be everywhere.

Don’t like this cover much

The tiger’s wife is a deaf-mute woman from the grandfather’s childhood village. She is also, like Natalia’s grandmother, a Muslim. The story of the tiger’s wife appears to be in microcosm the story of what happens in this Balkan country. There is distrust and fear and superstition. The villagers look for someone at whose feet they can lay all these fears. The tiger’s wife is it, because of her otherness in her inability to hear or speak, and also because of the strange connection she forms with a tiger that has escaped from the city zoo to live in the hills above the village. As a small child, the grandfather sees in stark relief the exact forces that will lead to war after war, conflict after conflict, death and more death. At one point he tells the deathless man: “This war never ends…It was there when I was a child, and it will be here for my children’s children.” And he’s right.

The Tiger’s Wife is a novel of subtlety. Its message about borders and conflict is subtle. It is not a political novel. It is a human novel. Its language is subtle, simple and yet moving. It sneaks up on you. In the first 20 pages or so, I might have been compelled to stop were it not for the book’s presence on the NY Times list (oh, the power of that list) and my own need to get to 100 books for the year. But it rewards you for sticking with it, and once the enticing stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife are dangled in front of you, it’s hard to resist.

I leave you with the very last paragraph of the book, which is beautiful and satisfying in the way the last paragraph of a novel should be, which you may be able to appreciate even if you have not read the book:

There is, however, and always has been, a place on Galina where the trees are thin, a wide space where the saplings have twisted away and light falls broken and dappled on the snow. There is a cave here. My grandfather’s tiger lives there, in a glad where the winter does not go away. He is the hunter of stag and boar, a fighter of bears, a great source of confusion for the lynx, a rapt admirer of the color of birds. He has forgotten the citadel, the nights of fire, his long and difficult journey to the mountain. Everything lies dead in his memory, except for the tiger’s wife, for whom on certain nights he goes calling, making that tight note that falls and falls. The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore.

P.S.  When I got to the end of writing this post, I realized I’d had “The Crane’s Wife,” a song and an album by The Decemberists in my head the whole time, which, of course makes sense.  And then I saw the second cover above, which really goes with the idea of literally a woman who is married to a tiger, and I just think is wrong for a cover.  But I started to wonder, why are there never any animal husbands?  Never “the tiger’s husband” or “the crane’s huband”?  Do men not marry animals?  And why not?

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