One of my colleagues asked me what book we going to do next for the book club. I told him The Tigers Wife by Tea Obreht and without hesitation he asked whether she was young and good-looking. Well, she is indeed both. He then went on to claim that publishing houses are, for one reason or another, pushing young and good looking authors because, well, they are a sure bet when it comes to actually selling books. This is, of course, arguable, and perhaps there is something to it. However you can be young and good-looking, but unless you can write well you are not going to sell books. So can Tea Obreht write? The short answer is yes, but the long answer is more complex.
The Tiger’s Wife has won the Orange Prize. Obreht was named by The New Yorker as one best writers under 40 (she’s 25). Obreht is also the youngest author to have won the Orange Prize for fiction. Obreht studied in the U.S, her adoptive home after her and her parents fled Yugoslavia before the war, under author T.C. Boyle, learning to hone her craft. The Tiger’s Wife does read like a crafted piece of work, and you can sometimes see the joins. The narrator of the novel is Natalia, a young doctor trying to make a difference in post war former Yugoslavia. Over the course of the novel Natalia fails to engage the reader, as there’s something two dimensional about her character. This isn’t helped by the sometimes matter of fact and stilted writing. There’s just not much tension generated by pose that is just too careful and too crafted, which results in a curious lack of engagement with Natalia and some of the other characters.
The novel does have its strengths however, enough to make it worth reading and for the book to stay with you for a while. There’s the tiger of course, escaped from a zoo during bombing and ending up roaming outside and inside a remote mountain village. This is where Natalia’s grandfather, the most sympathetic character in the book, encounters the beast and the tale of the tiger’s wife unfolds. This is done slowly, interspaced with less interesting chapters set just after the Yugoslavian war that fragmented that country. The grandfather is a retired doctor set in his ways and full of tales and experiences. He tells Natalia about his encounters with the Deathless Man, perhaps the greatest creation in the book. The Deathless Man is both charming and sinister in an ambiguous way. He’s fascinating and it is here that Obreht’s possible future as a writer of note reveals its promise. I will not tell you too much so not to spoil the impact of this great character.
There are many other characters, many of which have long back-stories and some that engage more than others. It’s somewhat of a tapestry, set across disparate periods of time and told through fables and tall tales, some of which are very entertaining. There are also very realistic sections towards the end that portray what it may be like to live through the bombing of a city. These sections are both horrific and graphic, without being obvious, something that is hard to pull off. Finally there’s some tension is at play and it’s a pity that this isn’t present in the rest of the book.
Some readers will not be taken by The Tiger’s Wife, but for those willing to be seduced by its charms and are willing to overlook its flaws the book offers much to enjoy. Apparently Random House has bought out the rights to her next work, so the future is indeed bright for Obreht.