The places to which your blood is anchored

The Tiger’s Wife
by Téa Obreht

I am trying not to let my jealousy of young, beautiful, successful Téa Obreht colour my feelings about this book because she is undeniably talented and deserving too. This novel felt original and inventive by using traditional folktale-type storytelling.

How do you describe what this book is about? It’s about the civil war that broke up Yugoslavia; it’s about love in its many forms; it’s about the affection we bestow on objects, animals or even people who can never return it; it’s about how superstitions and folk stories are created and why they are important. But it begins and keeps on coming back to the death of a beloved grandfather.

The narrator, Natalia, is a doctor who is travelling to an orphanage across the newly formed border to deliver vital vaccines and other medical care when she receives news of her grandfather’s death. This story is already complicated by odd details and family secrets, and then when she arrives at the orphanage she finds another complicated situation awaits, tied up in distrust and superstition and national identity. Obreht weaves into this story not one but effectively three further plots: Natalia’s relationship with her grandfather, the story her grandfather told her of the Deathless Man, and the story she pieced together after his death of the Tiger’s Wife.

At first, the “facts” within the novel versus the fictions seem clear, but as the novel progresses they are increasingly wound up together until they cannot be separated. The main recurring theme is the tiger. During Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood, a tiger escapes from the zoo in the big city and comes into his village, triggering local legend for generations to come and consolidating the boy’s love of The Jungle Book, a copy of which he carries with him for the rest of his life. Natalia’s earliest memories are of going to the zoo every week with her grandfather and his particular love of the tiger there, and later his distress for the tiger during the zoo’s war-enforced closure. Obreht describes scenes from the tiger’s point of view and yet never once anthropomorphises him.

The writing is lyrical without being longwinded. In fact, a lot is packed in and it was a long way into the book that I realised just how much it was about the war that broke up Yugoslavia. In a way, this is dealt with in an underhand way because the country is never named. Natalia’s home is just the City and all the other placenames given are fictitious. But between Obreht’s background and the details that are given, it seems likely that the setting is the Balkans. The City of two rivers that is untouched by years of civil war until a sudden onslaught of bombing might easily be Belgrade. I don’t know if the names are withheld out of sensitivity for which side of the new borders the characters are from, or if this is just another element of mystique adding to the fable quality of the story. Certainly, when the narrative delves into the histories of characters they seem to match up with the history of the Balkans, with invasions from Turks and Germans, and there is an interesting discussion of people who have only just become one nation, with one identity, coming to terms with its dissolution.

“When your fight has purpose—to free you from something, to interfere on behalf of an innocent—it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unravelling—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 are fed by it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.”

Obreht does a good job of combining a modern feeling in the first-person narrator, who is real and rounded, and an old-fashioned round-the-fire storytelling vibe. My only gripe would be that toward the end I started to feel that there were too many stories at once. Every notable character within each story gets a full backstory and I started to notice that details overlap or repeat, which I am sure has significance but was too many levels for me. But maybe that just means that it will reward re-reading.

First published in 2011 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011.