Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

A book club review book and one I never would have picked up otherwise.  But let's just get one thing off my chest first.  Téa Obreht is unfairly gifted and talented.  Not only is she young (born in the 1980's - so unfair!), but judging by her photo inside the back cover she is also a bit of a honey.  Now that's just not on!  

Right, rant over.  Envy in check.  Composure regained. 

This book really took me by surprise.  At first it does read like an overly 'worthy' kind of first novel - lots of clever techniques (discombobulated timeline, telling the story from different points of view with different narrators, lots of little mini 'backstories') and it took me a couple of chapters to settle into it.  Or maybe it took the book a couple of chapters to settle into itself.  Whatever.  It grew and evolved as I turned the pages.  

What intrigued me most was the blurring of fact, fiction and history that Obreht magages to achieve.  Yes, it's set in a fictional town in a fictional country, but there is something so real about the place names, so familiar, that you think 'ooh I've heard that on the news. Wasn't there a civil war there?' and find yourself double-checking on google in case you're being unbelievably ignorant (extremely likely in my case - and I wouldn't be surprised if someone tells me that it's not a fictional country at all, YOU FOOL).   

I have a few issues with the heroine Natalia, whose character is not entirely believable. She is everything that I, as a 21st century woman, should be interested in:  She has a strong family, is intelligent and highly educated, is a bit of a maverick with a rebellious side, she confronts dangerous situations with confidence, she does charitable work, etc. etc.  

But I don't like her.  She's just not... likeable.  I feel mean even writing this, but she isn't a character I related to or identified with in any way.  I can't put my finger on why this is.  Maybe it's because her story is so disjointed, interrupted as it is by the various mini-stories that run throughout.  Maybe her character just doesn't develop enough for me: she doesn't seem to entertain emotions for more than a couple of paragraphs and there seem to be no consequences for her.  She serves as a vehicle for the other stories and this can come across quite clumsily in parts. 

Having said that, the overall feel of the novel is beautiful.  It has a real dreamlike quality to it.  You float in and out of the many backstories as the narrative twines around the landscape and the people, sometimes darting back to the far distant past, taking you down unexpected avenues.  The language is at times breathtakingly poetic and some of the characters from these backstories have a mythical presence: The Bear, the Deathless Man.  The story of the tiger itself, its journey from the city, was particularly well executed.  I identified much more with the tiger than with Natalia!  

I was also bizarrely tempted into sympathy with the most horrific wife-beater I've come across in recent readings.  His personal history unfolded with extraordinary grace, showing how his personality and character completely changed and he became the stereotypical feared husband.  The question of nature/nurture is brought up here which was mildy interesting (if, like many of the 'asides', I found fairly irrelevant).  My sympathy was however short-lived I'd like to add. 

If only these stories could have been brought together a bit more at the end, or if the suspense of the Grandfather's bag had been borne out, I'd have put this book down with a bit more satisfaction. 

A brilliant debut though, and I'll definitely be following Obreht's career...

Tea's official website is here 
You can buy The Tiger's Wife at Amazon here  

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