Tea Obreht is everywhere at the moment: one of the 'Waterstones' 11' debut writers, one of the New Yorker's '20 Under 40' and now her debut novel is on the Orange Prize shortlist. Every where it goes The Tiger's Wife seems to be garlanded and liberally adored. Though somewhat tempered and at risk of spoilering my post, my own feelings continue in the same vein - how boring! But what can I say: it's a polished first novel. It oozes confidence. If there was still an Orange Prize for New Writers I'm pretty certain this would be our winner in 2011.
It is a novel that has both body and soul. The body is the framing narrative, the story of a young doctor named Natalia, whose grandfather has just died. The soul is the intertwined folklore-esque stories of the tiger's wife and the deathless man, originally told to Natalia by her grandfather and now narrated to us as a way of exploring her grief. As one would expect, it is the soul that gives the novel it's soaring power and feeling, while the body anchors us firmly to the earth.
The scene is set in the post-war Balkans, in an unnamed country recently divided into two autonomous nations. Two doctors - Natalia, and her close friend Zora - set off from 'the City' to cross the new border in order to immunise children at a seaside orphanage (populated, no doubt, as a result of the recent conflict). In the first stages of the journey, at the point of border control, Natalia receives an urgent message from her family: her beloved grandfather has died in a distant clinic, apparently while on his way to see her. She has the choice to turn back to his funeral, or to continue on regardless. She doesn't turn back. It is a puzzling decision, quickly made and barely questioned; but in a novel full of emotional detachment and dislocation, it makes a sort of sense. What follows is an exploration of their relationship, through story and action; in any number of ways it is also an exploration of the pain, longing and horror of conflict.
The whole book fizzes and pops with violent subtext. The recent war, fought along ethnic and religious lines, is made flesh in Natalia's own family. Her beloved grandfather was an Orthodox Christian from one side of the border; her grandmother, a Muslim from the other. Now, travelling over that same border she recognises an 'anxiety about how your name started and ended.' Although the host family, who lost a son in the war, are friendly but they 'did not ask us about our drive, about our work, or about our families. Instead, in order to avoid any potential political or religious tangents, the conversation turned to crops.' During the doctors' stay a sickly family from another village digs up the local vineyard, searching for the body of a cousin hastily buried there. His ghost won't let their spirits rest.
Raised in the 'City' during 'the war', Natalia's personality has been formed in aggressive opposition to the violent historic forces around her. She is full of guilt - over 'the fact that something terrible was happening elswhere, and at the same time to us, gave us room to get away with anarchy. Never mind that, three hundred miles away, girls sitting in bomb shelters were getting their periods at the age of seven. In the City, we weren't just affected by the war, we were entitled to our affectation.' And of a kind of anger, because she was shaped by the war but was too young to have 'experienced it': she couldn't fight, or treat the wounded, or do anything except simply live through it.
These tormented feelings, as well as her personal grief, form the backdrop to the retelling of the two stories her grandfather shared with her: the tale of his three encounters with the 'deathless man', Gavran Gaile; and the story of the Tiger's Wife, in his long-ago childhood in the village of Galina. Both stories are intricately connected, both to each other and to the history of Natalia's country. They are both, in their way, very beautiful and full of longing (and, I think, the strongest pieces of writing in the book). They have a definite flavour of folklore and fate about them; an unreality that is more like a hyper-reality. Gavran Gaile is death's apprentice, a human man damned to spend an immortal life collecting the souls of the dead but never finding his own release. While the tiger's wife is a young woman from Galina, whose husband beats her and who befriends a tiger that escapes from the zoo in the City during the second world war.
War connects the stories together - WWI, WWII and then all the useless wars that followed them. The book links 'the story of war - dates, names, who started it, why - that belongs to everyone' with the stories that 'belongs only to you. And me. Only to us.' So, Natalia's grandfather's personal stories inform, interpret and shadow the grand narrative of the world, but are also far grander in their surreal, otherworldly profundity.
The tiger of the title is the avatar that carries both of these narratives, figuratively, in his person. When he escapes from the City zoo (a deeply symbolic place in itself), he charges the novel with electricity:
'People must have seen him, but in the wake of the bombardment he was anything but a tiger to them: a joke, an insanity, a religious hallucination. He drifted, enormous and silent, down the alleys of the Old Town, past the smashed-in doors of coffeehouses and bakeries, past motorcars flung through shop windows. He went down the tramway, up and over fallen trolleys in his path, beneath lines of electric cable that ran through the city and now hung broken and black as jungle creeper.'
Arriving in Galina he is a completely alien creature, association-less, with the power of a God:
'A tiger. What did that mean to a man like Vladisa? I knew tiger because my grandfather took me to the citadel every week and pointed to show me, tiger, because the labels in the taxidermy museum where we sometimes spent quiet afternoons read tiger, because tiger crawled, in intricate Chinese patterns, all over the lid of my grandmother's knee-balm tin. Tiger was India, and lazy yellow afternoons; the sambar, eyes wide, neck broken, twisting in the mangroves while Kipling's jungle creepers bent how to mark the killer's back. But in my grandfather's village, in those days, a tiger - what did that even mean? A bear, a wolf, yes. But tiger? How fear came.'
Galina is very much like a fairytale village, a medieval settlement frozen in time, with the butcher, the baker, the blacksmith, the apothecary. The latter is a 'tooth puller, dream interpreter, measurer of medicine, keeper of the magnificent scarlet ibis- the reliable magician, the only kind of magician my grandfather could ever admire.' The entrance of the tiger is like a challenge from times of old, and men set out to vanquish him. But they don't, and instead war comes, and German forces on its heels. And Natalia's grandfather grows up and goes out into the world with the spirit and idea of that tiger still inside him, and meets the deathless man, and grows old, and gets cancer and dies in an out of the way place after a war that has divided his family in two. It really is an extraordinary narrative arc for Natalia to travel, and us with her.
I'm not articulating very well how The Tiger's Wife fits together, how it weaves it's eery thematic cloth. There are parts of it that jarred with me, despite its great strength - the protests at the zoo, the fate of the apothecary - and bits where I thought the writing lacked lustre. It was tempting too to see it as a book with two parts that don't cohere - Natalia's story and the stories she tells - but in retrospect it is clear how they speak to each other. This isn't a prediction, but I wouldn't be surprised if it won the Orange Prize next week.