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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Book Review: The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

This was the assigned book for my book club and I wasn't crazy about the selection - a book described as having magical realism, blurbed by T.C. Boyle (who I don't like), and set in Eastern Europe, just wasn't my cup of tea.  I wasn't exactly cringing, but it wasn't on my list to read, despite its amazing reviews and word of mouth and being a National Book Award finalist.  However, I was actually kind of glad about the assignment because of all of these things.  The book is hot right now in literary circles, and I ought to read it.  And I'm glad I did.

Natalia is a young doctor, traveling to a small town to administer vaccines to poor children. While she is gone her beloved grandfather, who only she knew was sick with cancer, dies in another small town, away from home.  The book is filled with flashbacks to Natalia and her grandfather while she was growing up.  He once got her up in the middle of the night and took her out into the street to see a marvelous thing - a circus elephant walking along.  Devotees of the city zoo, they both really appreciated her regal appearance as she lumbered slowly through town.  Her grandfather always wanted to go see the tiger, and Natalia knew it was because of an experience he'd had as a small child growing up in a remote, isolated tiny village, and the story, which is told throughout the novel, is the story of The Tiger's Wife.  Her grandfather never got around to telling it to her, but she sought it out later, as it explained so much about him.  He did however, tell her the story of The Deathless Man, which I loved. 

I would dispute anyone who considers these stories to be "magical realism" as I don't think we're supposed to believe them.  I think they're Tall Tales, knowingly embellished, told 4th- or 5th-hand, and the parts that are obviously fictionalized, we're supposed to know are fictionalized and take them at face value, nothing more.  I hate magical realism for simply bending the laws of reality when its convenient, and you're supposed to believe that a man can just make himself so heavy that ten other men can't lift him.  You're not really supposed to believe here that a tiger is the husband of a woman, and can unzip his tiger "clothes" and become a man at night for her.  It's a story, and a great story, but also a very foreign one to me.  I did love both these Tall Tales, but overall the foreignness of the book made it hard for me to identify with and really get into. 

The author just jumps into the story and gives very few details and no exposition at all.  You have to figure out where we are (the former Czechoslovakia) and when (late 90s?) and with whom (Natalia's name isn't mentioned until 50 pages in) which on the one hand it nice - she trusts the readers to figure these things out without being spoonfed, but for me it was distracting as I spent a lot of effort trying to answer these questions, which kept me aware of the fact of reading and didn't allow me to become immersed and caught up in the story.  The book is a lovely meditation on death without being maudlin.

Beautifully written, unique, and stirring with great topics to discuss, it was a great selection for book club, and I imagine it will stay with me for time to come.  I do wish I'd been able to identify with it more and hadn't felt so foreign reading it, but those are minor flaws, and I suspect I'll find myself recommending it a lot in the coming months.

I bought this book at Park Road Books, my local independent bookstore.

1 comment:

Carole said...

I was wondering whether you would be happy to put up a link in my brand new monthly series called “Books You Love”. The idea is for people to link up posts about a book they loved – it doesn’t have to be one they just posted about. It could be an old fave. I am hoping we will end up with a nice collection of books that can go on our reading lists. Here is the link Books You Loved May Edition