Sunday, 11 December 2011

Magic + Tigers

I'm getting seriously behind in writing up what I've read. The "stack", in plain view from our computer, is now high enough to require splitting into two piles. On that note, an overdue visit to this year's Orange Prize winner, The Tiger's Wife by the Balkan/American writer Téa Obreht.

Set in an unnamed Balkan state with events scattered through a war-torn 20th century, The Tiger's Wife is told firstly from the perspective of Natalia, a doctor delivering aid and expertise to communities shattered by the state's most recent bout of in-fighting. Out of her element with a humanitarian quest of her own to complete, Natalia hears of the death of her grandfather, a fellow doctor. As she juggles her medical responsibilities with an attempt to recover her grandfather's personal effects, she reminisces over his life and the stories that he told her of it, in particular, two prominent figures that feature in it, the Tiger's Wife and the deathless man. The Tiger's Wife, a deaf-mute girl who formed a bond with an escaped tiger from a bombed zoo, is a figure from his rural adolescence. The deathless man, first encountered on a medical errand to a superstitious village, has crossed Natalia's grandfather's path several times during his life. The tales of the deathless man convince Natalia that her grandfather may have crossed paths with him once more, and she sets out with an expectation that she, too, may meet him.

Much as with my last read, The Tiger's Wife treads in territory that I'm not usually comfortable with, but does so very enjoyably. On this occasion, rather than fantasy, we're in the realm of magical realism (which, when you think about it, is basically fiction with fantastical elements). All of which means that, though thoroughly enjoying myself, I can't ultimately take the novel quite as seriously as I probably should. It exists in a world tangential to that which we actually occupy, so the lessons proffered probably fall a little onto deaf ears in my case. I'm fine with allegory when it stays firmly as allegory, in fact, I love it, but when it is actually revealed as reality, as here, I'm less sure what to make of it. But I'm getting ahead of myself there, and (needlessly) applying the boot before singing praises.

Anyway, getting back to business ... The Tiger's Wife is a great read, with an engaging story and some just beautiful writing. The novel would be quite an achievement from an old-hand, but Obreht is a first-time novelist, but yet makes it all seem effortless. She juggles a number of narratives, and paces them all well, even managing to seamlessly slide in colourful personal histories of characters as they occur (including, memorably, the Tiger itself). On top of which, the novel communicates a comforting and humane vision of life even as it is set within, and explores, conflict and its fallout. Interestingly, though clearly set against the backdrop of the recent wars in the Balkans, Obreht eschews any attempt to tie her story to a particular place or conflict. I suspect someone more familiar with the geography and culture could make more of what she does say, but I quite liked her approach of making things simultaneously familiar but indistinct.

As hinted above, some of my favourite parts of the novel are its biographical asides. There are a number of passing characters, including the Tiger, for whom Obreht pauses and fills in the background history for the reader. While these should disrupt the narrative, instead they embellish it, adding little gems of extra texture and flavour (to mix my metaphors) to the novel. I suspect that these interludes work best because she uses them to fashion a self-contained story that relatively quickly shines a light over an unexpected section of Balkan society, as with Luka, husband to the Tiger's Wife, but also a composer of songs, wife-beater and closeted man in a macho culture.

(For full disclosure, I particularly enjoyed reading about the novel's various tigers, though it's a hard read at times. At most times in fact - the scenes set in the zoo during the novel's most recent conflict won't be leaving me any time soon. It's perhaps a sentimentalist view, one, I think, borne out the backfoot that animals finds themselves on in the modern world, but I find the plight of animals often more wrenching than that of the humans around them. Unable to see the bigger picture, unable to discern their dwindling future, and profoundly unable to do anything about it, I find their position in novels, and in the world, routinely more tragic than that of suffering people. Largely, I guess, because of my biologist training and appreciation of the (near) future oblivion that awaits most animal species, but it probably comes across as inhuman!)

By way of summary, a very enjoyable, and highly accomplished, first novel. Great central narratives and some excellent detours. I remain a little uncomprehending about the novel's treatment of certain elements, the deathless man foremost, but this didn't seriously dampen my appreciation. Curiously, I found the treatment of these elements more satisfying in The Tiger's Wife than in novels such as The Book Thief, where its dealt with in a more upfront manner. Perverse, I know. Anyway, to be recommended.

There's an important post-script to the above over here.

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