As I finished the last lines of “The Tiger’s Wife”, I was engulfed with a sense of envy. Envious at Tea Obreht, for being so gifted with words – layer upon layer of words – which come together as a beautiful, intricate, and deep narrative, rich in imagery, emotions, folklore, and the many ways we as humans relate with our lands, families, friends, and nations. The way our pasts effect and shape us. And the different ways we approach life, and of course, death.
“The Tiger’s Wife” centers on Natalia, and the stories she tells about her grandfather. As a young, idealist doctor, Natalia searches to find out more about the mysterious passing away of his grandfather – also a doctor – and his fascinating past. A person portrayed by Natalia as someone who reminded me of the movie “Big Fish”. A person who is philosophical, principled, and surrounded by an idealism that is fairy tale-like.
The narrative weaves the past and present seamlessly, creating not only a two-dimensional tapestry, but something more like a three-dimensional quilt, made up of different materials, textures and sensations. In the end, the entire 338-page book feels like multi-layered fable, so satisfying. I have to say, it is quite warming to the heart.
Aside from the great doctor (the grandfather), characters like the deathless man, Darisa the Bear, a great human-eating tiger, and of course, the tiger’s wife feature strongly. Characters that are more urban legend-like than the regular people we see on the streets. There are also snapshots of an elephant walking the empty morning streets, and the search for a human heart buried in an orchard. Everything seems so surreal, yet feels so real.
And for me, I enjoyed immensely the historical and geographical background on which Obreht imposed these characters and stories: the Balkan region that continuously alternates between war and peace, misery and glee, destruction and reconstruction, despair and hope. Each one waiting to take over the other in a vicious circle.
In such a subtle way, Obreht laments the follies of mankind and the absurdity of conflict and war. Her story is about the common people, who suffer from prejudice and our constant fear of the unknown. About the things that are often left unsaid, and those that shouldn’t remain unsaid.
“…the cease fire had provided the delusion of normalcy, but never peace. When your fight has purpose – to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent – it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling – when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event – there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. The fight is endless…”
The story, I find, is also about uncovering and realizing “the tiger” within each and one of us. The fighting spirit, the survival virtues, the noble principles, the great fear in every one of us. It is about the way that we deal with that tiger, and maybe even becoming it, in its more benign form. About coming to terms with ourselves.
How I envy Tea Obreht for these words…