Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: "The Tiger's Wife," by Tea Obreht

The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht
Random House, 2011

The protagonist of The Tiger's Wife, Natalia, is a young woman who has followed in her grandfather's footsteps by becoming a doctor.  The chapters of the book interweave three stories.  The first is set in the present.  Natalia and her long-time best friend, Zora, travel to a rural Balkan village to inoculate children, a mission similar to ones undertaken by her grandfather when he was a young man.  While she is on the road, she learns of her grandfather's death.  Natalia and her grandfather were close, and Natalia has many memories of him.  Foremost among these was visiting the zoo, particularly the tiger who made his home there.  The news of her grandfather's death prompts Natalia to tell the stories that comprise the other two strands of the novel.

The second strand of the book concerns the village where her grandfather grew up as a boy.  It concerns a tiger, the tiger's wife, the tiger's wife's husband, the apothecary, and a bear hunter.  The third strand of the book concerns Natalia's grandfather as a young man.  As he traveled the region as a doctor he encountered more than once "a deathless man."  Thus the life story of Natalia's grandfather's becomes a series of fables, not unlike, I suppose, the stories in a book which has particular meaning for him, "The Jungle Book."

The Tiger's Wife is set in the former Yugoslavia, but names of ethnicities such as Serb, Bosnian, Croat, and Slovenian are never mentioned.  Likewise, states and large cities are not referred to by name.  Neither are specific wars (and there have been quite a few).  This reinforces, I think, that the stories in The Tiger's Wife are fables.  And, I might add, the fables are fantastic stories.  They're sad, they're suspenseful, and they're incredibly detailed.  Above all, they're incredibly imaginative.  And, of course, they're thought-provoking, as fables should be.

Did I mention that The Tiger's Wife is a great book?  It definitely is.  The story behind its writing is pretty great too.  Tea Obreht was all of 24 when it was published.  She was born in Belgrade, moved to Cyprus at age 7 or thereabouts, lived for a while in Egypt, and finally moved to the United States at age 12.  She wrote the bulk of the book while in college at Cornell.  I'd say Ms. Obreht is a pretty gifted writer and storyteller.  I hope she appears one day on The Charlie Rose Show or Fresh Air with Terry Gross, because I'd love to hear how she came up with some of the ideas in the book.

The Tiger's Wife is not a Young Adult title, but it is a book certain young readers will find rewarding.  It gets my recommendation. 5 out of 5 stars.

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Okay, so it's not Charlie Rose or Terry Gross, but here is a very interesting clip of Ms. Obreht on PBS' Newshour:

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