Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

This strange, beguiling novel tells many stories. Natalia is a doctor working in the Balkans in the aftermath of years of war. She learns her grandfather - also a doctor - has died in peculiar circumstances, and in trying to investigate what happened we learn about their time together, and his past. That includes his meetings with a man who cannot die, and childhood experience with a deaf-mute woman known as the Tiger's Wife. We unpick the lives of peripheral characters along the way.

It's beautifully written and full of striking imagery. I find myself lingering over particular moments: Natalia and her grandfather following an elephant as it is escorted through town, or Natalia spraying water at her family's holiday home while a wildfire gets ever closer. The sequences with the Deathless Man are brilliantly creepy - at one point, we discover him walled up in the basement of a church, calmly pointing out which of the other people there will not survive the night.

For all the fantasy elements, the real horror is from ordinary people - their cruelty and indifference, the suffering they inflict. Luka, for example, abuses his wife and when he then vanishes people assume he's been murdered - and don't really seem to mind. But we also follow the thread of his life to understand why he is violent. It doesn't condone his actions, or make them any less appalling.

The fate of an apothecary, told right at the end of the book, is the most potent example of what can happen when a country turns on itself and anyone thought of as "foreign". It felt depressingly timely. And then his story concludes by almost casually mentioning the fate of the Tiger's Wife, which is devastating.

One puzzling thing: on the cover, a header proclaims, "Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011". There's then also a sticker proclaiming the same thing.

1 comment:

Mondy said...

Yep, it won the Orange Prize now called the Women’s Prize for Fiction back in 2011.