Book Review: Téa Obreht’s THE TIGER’S WIFE

Though this is Téa Obreht’s debut novel, it arrives with loud fanfare after the author landed on The New Yorker‘s “Best 20 Under 40” list—she’s the youngest at 25—and the National Book Foundation named her one of the “Best 5 Under 35.” In addition, The Tiger’s Wife has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist and the Library Journal. Does the book live up to the hype? Yes and no, depending on how much you like narration vs. dialogue.

The narrator is a young doctor named Natalia who’s traveling in an unnamed Balkan country with her friend Zóra to deliver medical aid to an orphanage. On the way, Natalia receives news that her beloved grandfather has died under mysterious circumstances away from home. She sets out to bring back his belongings and in the process recalls the stories he had told her since childhood. These include tales of “the deathless man” her grandfather met as a young man, a tiger who came to live (and be feared as the devil) in her grandfather’s village when he was a boy, and the deaf-mute girl who became known as the tiger’s wife.

Obreht is undeniably a gifted writer, able to conjure vivid imagery in her descriptions of a country ravaged by war. Her understanding of history lends depth and maturity to her storytelling. The problem is there’s too much of a good thing. The author’s omniscient voice is everywhere so she tends to describe everything, even getting inside a tiger’s head to describe his feelings. She often writes up to a dozen pages of narrative without any dialogue. This style left me feeling a little removed from the proceedings. Dialogue draws me into scenes in an immediate way, making me feel like someone eavesdropping on conversations. Too much narration renders me passive as a reader, as if I’m only getting a summary of characters’ actions after the fact. I often missed the insight that can be gleaned from what people say to each other, whether or not they’re telling the truth. Some readers may have no problem sitting back and being told a good story; I like to feel as if I’m inside it.

Obreht’s cast of characters is uneven, with some much more interesting than others. The grandfather is the strongest link; every scene he’s in is riveting. The deathless man with his mysterious coffee cup is also quite a creation; someone who possibly works for Death should be creepy but is instead charming and well-mannered. The deaf-mute girl is a heart-rending figure elevated to mystical status and the tiger at times seems more human than the men who engage in animalistic violence.

Because these stories are captivating, I got impatient with the chapters about the less intriguing characters, including Natalia. She’s chasing the truth about her grandfather while remaining somewhat of a blank slate. Obreht also digresses into the histories of the butcher and the apothecary from the grandfather’s village. The backstories do have emotional resonance but are disproportionately long for such tangential characters, pulling focus away from the central ones. Ultimately, Tiger’s Wife has much to be admired even if it’s not quite as magical as some of the legends it tells.

Nerd verdict: A tame Tiger’s

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  • Reply
    Naomi Johnson
    March 8, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Hm, moving this way down on the list. Down to the “library reserve” rather than the “buy now” part of the list.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      March 8, 2011 at 7:06 pm

      I believe you get the award for fastest commenter in the history of PCN: approx. 5.9 seconds after I posted this!

      I think the library reserve is about right. Parts of this book are fascinating but overall it didn’t make me swoon.

      • Reply
        Naomi Johnson
        March 8, 2011 at 7:09 pm

        I had just opened Google Reader and your post was right at the top. That might be fast work on my part, but it was a heckuva lot faster on Google’s part.

  • Reply
    March 8, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    Beautiful cover on this one.

    I’ve actually noticed with lots of these types (modern narrator, historical story) the present-day stuff just doesn’t work. The Sherlockian and The Swan Thieves immediately come to mind. It’s annoying. LEAVE ME IN THE GOOD PART. And you gotta give me dialogue. I’m a Hemingway gal – show; don’t tell.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      March 9, 2011 at 3:44 pm

      I agree about THE SHERLOCKIAN’s present-day chapters being much less interesting than the ones with Conan Doyle and Stoker! And I’m someone who prefers contemporary to historical fiction.

  • Reply
    Jen Forbus
    March 9, 2011 at 8:58 am

    I heard a lot about this book but it hasn’t been on my radar to pick up. Don’t think I’ll put it there, either. What you’re saying sounds like how I felt reading Tana French, only I didn’t really end up liking any of her characters. Anyway, it’s good to know.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      March 9, 2011 at 3:46 pm

      Glad I’m not the only one who couldn’t get into Tana French! She’s won about every award out there but I couldn’t finish IN THE WOODS.

      • Reply
        March 9, 2011 at 10:32 pm

        I’ve been wondering if I should get in on this Tana French business. IN THE WOODS sounds pretty interesting but I haven’t managed to pick it up.

      • Reply
        Naomi Johnson
        March 10, 2011 at 4:12 am

        French put some lovely prose to paper in IN THE WOODS, but I felt that she broke an important covenant between author and mystery reader by not resolving that opening mystery. Also, you could see who the killer was a mile off. Lastly, like Jen, I ended not liking the characters, especially Cassie — LOATHED her. So when French’s 2nd book came out (and featuring Cassie), there was no way I was going to read it. Lovely prose just doesn’t make up for everything else that was wrong with that first book.

  • Reply
    March 9, 2011 at 11:29 am

    It’ll be interesting to see what her 2nd novel will be like. Maybe, if this book is recorded, an an abridged version would be a little more enjoyable…lose some of the unnecessary tangential backstories.

    I agree with jenn about the cover. I’d not heard of this book, but that cover art would have made me pick it up to check out.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      March 9, 2011 at 3:49 pm

      If this were a book of short stories, each one could stand on its own. But as I was trying to find out what happened to the grandfather and the tiger’s wife, I didn’t want to take the side roads back to the childhoods of those other characters.

  • Reply
    Diana Raabe
    April 1, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    I enjoyed your review but have to disagree a little. This is in no way a criticism of how you felt about the book, but a reminder of how subjective the reading experience is. Readers may want to see what other books you liked or disliked before basing their purchasing decision on this one review alone.

    I loved The Tiger’s Wife! I actually liked the backstories and thought the narrative lent itself well to good old-fashioned storytelling that keeps you wanting more. (Yann Martel didn’t have much dialogue in The Life of Pi, but the narrative was more than enough, as is Tea Obreht’s in The Tiger’s Wife. I’m not saying I loved The Life of Pi – just making a point because a lot of people did.)I’m a great fan of stories within stories, and The Tiger’s Wife is full of the kind that meet – or at least share a common denominator – in the end.

    Additionally, I thought several of the characters could possibly hold their own as main characters; they had that much depth. The apothecary, the deathless man and his uncle (of whom I dreamed last night), the deaf-mute and her sister, Luka whose disappearance remains a puzzle I continue to ponder, the grandfather with his passions, the villagers and their myths – and the mysterious but beautiful (you know he is!) tiger…

    Obreht has written what I call true contemporary literary fiction – not only hard to find, but even harder to do. If you enjoy Marquez, you’ll love this book. It’s my favorite novel of the year so far…hands down.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 1, 2011 at 2:58 pm

      Hi Diana,

      Thanks for reading my review and for your insightful comment. I welcome different opinions here because that’s what makes book discussions interesting. By no means do I hold my opinion as the end-all judgment on anything. All the previous comments here are from regular readers of this site so I believe they do have an idea of my taste in books.

      I agree with you that there are many fascinating characters in the book but like I said in the review, there are too many of them. I wanted to stay with certain ones more than others and hated being wrenched away from their stories. Perhaps, like you mentioned, the secondary characters should have been saved for their own novels.

      • Reply
        Diana Raabe
        April 5, 2011 at 11:19 am

        Oh no – I greatly disagree. As I said, this wonderful novel is full of stories within the story. Hence, the many necessary characters. “Should” have their own book and “could” have their own book are two very different things.

        Let me please just reiterate that this novel will delight anyone who is interested in literary fiction. The New Yorker named Obreht one of its coveted “20 under 40” best writers, a most unusual accomplishment for someone so young.

        She’s also received glowing reviews from NPR, the Kansas City Star, the LA Times, the New York Times and (coming soon!) from The Raabe Review. Tea Obreht is bound for literary stardom and The Tiger’s Wife is the perfect vehicle to get her started on the way.

        If you don’t like smart novels, you may want to stick to something that requires less brain power (such as the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society). But for those of us who do, The Tiger’s Wife is not to be missed.

        • Reply
          jenn aka the picky girl
          April 5, 2011 at 11:42 am

          First, I have to say – I love differing opinions. I welcome them on my blog. Today I posted about Let the Great World Spin – a beautiful book in many ways but also a book with some major problems. It was a National Book Award winner. Does that mean I’m wrong? No. I’m a reader, a well-qualified one, but I had a different perspective.

          It’s one thing to leave a comment and tell why you disagree; it is quite another thing to imply that because a blogger didn’t like a book YOU thought was brilliant, that said blogger is subpar. You see, it’s incredibly faulty logic to say “the blogger didn’t *love* this book; therefore, the blogger doesn’t like smart novels.”

          Also, I’m curious as to what makes a “smart” novel, but that opens up quite a different can of worms.

          • Reply
            Diana Raabe
            April 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm

            Settle down, Dear.

            I didn’t say anyone was subpar, but there is a great difference between novels like Moby Dick and chick-lit novels. I’m just saying – a difference. It is inarguable that Moby Dick requires more brain power. It’s just a difference. If you inferred something else, well, that’s in your head – not mine.

            My first comment (you obviously didn’t read the entire thread) stated, simply, a differing opinion. I only had to come and defend it when I was told that I was wrong — something you, in fact, argue against.

            The Pop Culture Nerd is not wrong and I am not wrong. Some novels require more brain power than others. Some people like to read novels that require less brain power; some people like to read novels that require more; some people like to read both. It is merely a difference that I was pointing out.

  • Reply
    Vera Muensch
    August 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    For someone who cares for the lost relationship between the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and others, for the lost world of her grandfather where waiters were hard taught, days had a predictable rhythm, the book is a delight.
    Ms. Obreht’s understanding of the “grief of war” is surprising for someone that young.

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