The Tiger’s Wife is the debut novel of Serbian-American writer Téa Obreht. It was published in 2011 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a British imprint of Orion Books, and by Random House in America, and was a NYTimes Bestseller.
The Tiger’s Wife won the British Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. The annual prize, recognising “excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world”, then included £30,000 cash and the “Bessie”, a limited edition bronze figurine. At 25, Obreht was the youngest ever winner of the Orange Prize at the time of her award.
In 2011 Obreht was also a finalist for the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize for English-language writers age 18 to 30. She also won the 2012 Indies Choice Adult Debut Book of the Year Award.
Plot Overview: [From Author Website]In a Balkan country mending from war, Natalia, a young doctor is compelled to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfathers recent death. Searching for clues, she turns to his worn copy of The Jungle Book and the stories he told her of his encounters over the years with “the deathless man.” But most extraordinary of all is the story her grandfather never told her—the legend of the tiger’s wife. About Téa Obrecht:[From Author Website]Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia, and grew up in Cyprus and Egypt before eventually immigrating to the United States. Her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, and was a 2011 National Book Award finalist and an international bestseller. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading, and has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Vogue, Esquire and Zoetrope: All-Story, among many others. She was the recipient of the Rona Jaffe fellowship from the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty. She lives in New York with her husband, and teaches at Hunter College.
Author Website:http://www.teaobreht.comThe Tiger’s Wife Wikipedia:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tiger%27s_WifeTéa Obrecht Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Téa_ObrehtTéa Obrecht Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/teaobreht/
In the Media / Reviews: A Mythic Novel of the Balkan Wars (NYTimes, 3/11/2011)
Think back to the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, with their profusion of names that are difficult to pronounce and acts that are painful to recall: the massacres at Brcko and Srebrenica, the bombing of bread lines in Sarajevo, the destruction of Mostar’s 400-year-old bridge.
None of these appear in Téa Obreht’s first novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” yet in its pages she brings their historic and human context to luminous life. With fables and allegories, as well as events borrowed from the headlines, she illustrates the complexities of Balkan history, unearthing patterns of suspicion, superstition and everyday violence that pervade the region even in times of peace. Reaching back to World War II, and then to wars that came before, she reveals the continuity beneath the clangor.
A metaphor for the author’s achievement can be found in her tale of Luka, a dreamy, brooding butcher’s son from a mountain village called Galina. A decade after World War I, Luka leaves Galina and walks 300 miles to the river port of Sarobor, where he hopes to master the gusla, a single-stringed Balkan folk instrument. Arriving there, he finds that gusla music is nearly forgotten, overtaken by rollicking modern tunes played by lusty, boisterous bands. Still, he seeks out old men who know the traditional songs, falls under the spell of the “throbbing wail of their voices winding through tales remembered or invented” and acquires their art. Although his gift is for lyrics rather than music, “there are those who say that any man who heard Luka play the gusla, even in wordless melody, was immediately moved to tears.” When a woman asks why he doesn’t prefer an instrument with a greater number of strings, he responds, “Fifty strings sing one song, but this single string knows a thousand stories.”
The principal collector of Obreht’s multiplicity of stories is her narrator, Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor who lives with her mother, grandmother and grandfather in an unnamed Balkan city early in the 21st century. Natalia likes to see herself as somebody with an edge: too rational to be cowed by old-fashioned superstitions, too modern for corny old-fashioned folk music. She prefers Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
As a little girl, Natalia adored her grandfather, a respected doctor and professor, and tagged along on his regular visits to the zoo, which was formerly a sultan’s fortress. “Past the aviary where the sharp-eared owls sleep,” they would walk to the moat where tigers loped, their “stripe-lashed shoulders rolling.” There she would listen, rapt, as her grandfather spoke of a girl he once knew who was known as the “tiger’s wife.” At the time, Natalia thought this was a fairy tale. After all, her grandfather always carried a copy of Kipling’s “Jungle Book” in his breast pocket. To his granddaughter, he was a fount of fantasy, her own private bard. In “The Tiger’s Wife,” Obreht weaves the old man’s richly colored reminiscences like silk ribbons through the spare frame of Natalia’s modern coming-of-age, a coming-of-age that coincides, as her grandfather’s had, with a time of political upheaval.
When Natalia is a teenager, war returns to the Balkans. The zoo closes, and a curfew is imposed. Natalia and her friends immerse themselves in “the mild lawlessness” that surrounds them. Among other things, this means spurning her grandfather and dating a young tough who sells black-market contraband. But late one night, missing the old man, she agrees to follow him on a wild goose chase whose purpose he won’t explain.
After following him through dark, empty streets, suddenly she sees what he sees: an elephant, a refugee from a defunct circus, being walked to the city’s embattled zoo. “None of my friends will ever believe it,” she exclaims in regret. “You must be joking,” her grandfather replies, rebuking her: “The story of this war — dates, names, who started it, why — that belongs to everyone. Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before. But something like this — this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. . . . You have to think carefully about where you tell it, and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?” Chastened, Natalia asks if he has other stories “like that,” stories “from before.” The question will transform her into a bard herself.
Ingeniously, Obreht juxtaposes Natalia’s matter-of-fact narration with contemporary folk tales that are as simple, enthralling and sometimes brutal as fables by Kipling or Dinesen. Soon after the war, the adult Natalia adds to this trove as she travels with a fellow doctor on a mercy mission to a town across the new border to inoculate orphans — orphans who have been created, she knows, “by our own soldiers.” “Twelve years ago,” she explains, “before the war, the people of Brejevina had been our people.” Back then, crossing borders was a formality, but now an unwary welcome is out of the question. Still, the family that plays host to the doctors treats them to a generous feast and takes care not to mention politics, religion or family matters. Nor do they explain the presence of a band of strange, sickly people roaming their property, digging holes day and night.
The diggers, Natalia learns, are hunting for the buried corpse of a relative who died without proper rites, whom they believe is blighting their family from the grave. They have come to Brejevina to right that wrong and expunge the curse. Sensible, educated Natalia finds that she can’t scorn their conviction. In fact, she has family rites of her own to attend to, a detour she must make to placate her grandmother. It’s on the drive back from this detour that Natalia recalls her grandfather’s story of Luka.
By this time, though, she has learned that neither Luka nor the tiger’s wife were characters from fairy tales. They were real people who lived in the village of Galina, the birthplace not only of Luka but of Natalia’s grandfather. The tiger who gave the “tiger’s wife” her name was real too: he made his way to Galina in 1941, spooked by bombs that fell on a Balkan city. In the woods above her grandfather’s village, Natalia tells us, the sound of the animal still vibrates amid the trees, a “tight note that falls and falls.” Arrestingly, Obreht shows that you don’t have to go back centuries to find history transformed into myth; the process can occur within a lifetime if a gifted observer is on hand to record it.
Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in 1985 but left at the age of 7, before the major conflict took hold. She lived in Cyprus and Egypt, then moved to the United States in 1997. In other words, she did not live in the former Yugoslavia during the war-torn years this book revisits. Filled with astonishing immediacy and presence, fleshed out with detail that seems firsthand, “The Tiger’s Wife” is all the more remarkable for being the product not of observation but of imagination.
For Obreht, the mind’s witness is more than equal to the eye’s. And her narrator, in retelling the experiences of her grandfather’s generation, enfolds them into her own. As his vision joins hers, old and new memories collide in a vibrant collage that has no date, no dateline.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht – Review (The Guardian, 3/11/2011)
In the surreal and yet all-too-real opening scene of Emir Kusturica’s 1995 film Underground, the Nazis bomb Belgrade zoo, causing the panicked animals to run for their lives. And it is during this same raid that the tiger of Téa Obreht’s debut novel escapes to the hills above the fictional village of Galina.
This was 60 years ago, the narrator Natalia tells us, but the complicated story of what happened to the tiger and the people of Galina lives on. It’s now rekindled by the death of Natalia’s beloved grandfather. He was a native of Galina and just a boy when the tiger appeared. The key to her grandfather’s life and death “lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man”.
Natalia has followed in her grandfather’s steps and become a doctor in “the City”. On hearing of his death, she takes us on a labyrinthine journey to investigate. He has been her constant companion – their weekly visit to the city zoo was a ritual. A humanist schooled in the old tradition, he remained loyal to his patients even after he was expelled from the university for political reasons. He never parted with his copy of The Jungle Book, not even when a mysterious stranger dubbed “the deathless man” won it in a bet to prove his immortality to the rational doctor.
The deathless man is presented as a key piece in the puzzle, along with the bear-man, the tormented butcher-musician, his long-suffering and deaf Muslim wife who becomes the tiger’s wife for reasons too complicated to explain here, and a whole menagerie of other rural Balkan curiosities whose stories are embroidered by a collective genius of superstition. The brilliant black comedy and matryoshka-style narrative are among the novel’s great joys. But they are also one of the problems: after meeting innumerable exotic characters, it dawned on me that the back-stories stand in for a story, and style stands in for emotion.
Obreht’s imagination is seductively extravagant and prone to folkloric hyperbole, and this makes parts of the novel read like a picaresque romp through some enchanted Balkan kingdom, rife with magic, murder and mayhem. Who cares, it’s all a fable about a war – no, several wars – in some unnamed land. No real places or persons are named: Tito is “the Marshall”, Belgrade is “the City”, and we are in “a Balkan country still scarred by war”.
But there is a sorrow that sometimes undercuts the flights of fancy, and this saves The Tiger’s Wife from being a freak show. Obreht’s – and Natalia’s – real journey is back in time, and the real investigation here is of the difficult times, violent death and crippled afterlife of that mythical place once called Yugoslavia. The puzzle is Yugoslavia itself. The zoo was bombed again in Natalia’s own time, the 1990s. The wolves ate their cubs, and the tiger, called Zbogom or Farewell, ate his own legs: a powerful metaphor for Serbia-Yugoslavia devouring her own children.
Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the 1980s, and her family left just as the war broke out, eventually settling in the US. This novel is a spirited attempt to cram her entire cultural and family heritage into a story. Modern Yugoslav fiction and film have tended towards the absurd, the hyperbolic and the surreal for a good reason: putting Yugoslavia’s history into a coherent narrative is hard even for historians. Obreht has prodigious talent for storytelling and imagery, so it seems only a matter of time before she writes something truly great.
The Tiger’s Wife is a frisky tiger cub chasing its tail – it covers a lot of ground, growls a lot, and never quite gets there, but we have fun along the way. What the novel lacks in emotional depth, it makes up for in personality and sheer wackiness. But the real delirium – and the real emotion – doesn’t lie in the stories of tiger-men, bear-men, deathless men and their consorts. It’s found in the students of medicine in the war-stricken “City” trying to get skulls on the black market. It’s there when the grandfather is tipped off by Serbian mercenaries about their plan to bomb the Muslim-dominated town of Sarobor (read Mostar of the destroyed bridge), and instead of getting out of there fast, he goes to an old restaurant, where a poignantly polite waiter serves him a last feast. He remembers his life here with his Bosnian wife, he bids farewell to the old Yugoslavia, and muses that “my name, your name, her name. In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground.”
Then the sky turns red with fire and the real law of the jungle comes to town.