I mentioned last week in my post about John Vaillant's The Tiger that every so often this (assumably) unintentional trends arise in literature, and that last year's was exotic animals, and especially tigers. Although I didn't read any of the tiger books when they were first out, I still managed to read two back to back almost a year later. You would think this would be tiger overload (I would have thought that if I'd planned things better), but instead it turned out that reading the detailed nonfiction account first meant I entered the The Tiger's Wife with a wealth of knowledge (both on a practical, biological level and on the folk tale, mythology level) that allowed me to sink in to Téa Obreht's novel with a kind of backstory already in place.
The Tiger's Wife is set in an unnamed Balkan country in the years after the war. People are still adjusting to the new countries and the new borders that accompany them. The novel is not really about that, though, so much as that is the condition of life for the characters. The novel opens with a memory: a little girl is taken by her grandfather to the zoo, where they sit and watch the tiger roam the moat (the zoo is in an old citadel). The little girl is Natalia, who in the present day of the novel is a young doctor driving to a much poorer, neighbouring country with her best friend (also a doctor) to administer vaccines to children in an orphanage run by a priest. She is driving to the orphanage when she finds out her grandfather (who was also a doctor) has died in some out of the way town, and that his belongings were not returned with his body. Her grandfather, Natalia is quite sure, was going to find the deathless man; her grandmother insists he was on his way to help her with the orphanage.
Natalia doesn't turn around, though. She goes back to the car, where she has left her friend waiting in line at the border, and she goes on with her work. When they arrive, they are put up with the priest's parents. Behind the house is a vineyard in the vineyard is a family digging holes. The patriarch, it seems, buried a relative in the vineyard during the war and now, because the relative was not given peace after his death, the whole family is very sick. Thus, the family must find the relative's body, perform a rite, and take his metaphorical heart to the crossroads so that he may find his way to the afterlife, thereby releasing his living family members from their illness. With this as the backdrop, Natalia and her friend must inoculate the children, and Natalia must try to manage her grief.
This latter she does by retelling the two main stories in her grandfather's life – as he related them to her. The first is that of the tiger's wife; the second, of the deathless man. These two stories are told in pieces, interspersed with the goings on of the present day and Natalia's memories of her grandfather, her de facto father figure since her own dad was not present in her life.
The tiger's wife is the story of a woman in her grandfather's village, who he knew when he was quite young. She was the deaf-mute wife of the town butcher, who beat her senselessly. During the Second World War, the citadel zoo was bombed and the tiger, who had been starving, escaped captivity. Of course, this tiger knew nothing about surviving in the wild, so he ate carrion and attempted to kill small animals, and in this way made it away from the City and into the mountains, walking through the deep winter snow all the way to the grandfather's tiny village. The grandfather had been given a copy of The Jungle Book and so knew Shere-kan when he saw him. The tiger's wife, on the other hand, did not know the tiger, but began feeding him nonetheless. Eventually, her husband disappeared, and she began allowing the tiger into the house at night. Around this time her pregnancy began to show.
The deathless man, however, was someone the grandfather didn't encounter until much later in life, when he was a doctor during another conflict. He came to a village where children were dying in their sleep and discovered that a man believed drowned had sat up during the middle of his funeral and asked for a glass of water. A shocked parishioner shot the "corpse" twice in the back of the head and still he did not die. This of course went against everything the young doctor knew and so he set off to the church (where the coffin had been wrapped in chains and left) to investigate. There he found a man who claimed to be death's nephew, cursed with a life without death. Over the course of his life, the grandfather encountered the deathless man twice more, each time in a less-likely circumstance.
Often in a novel with layered narratives told through different sections, one story line catches you and becomes the most compelling, making you rush through the other(s) so you can settle into the one you most enjoy. But Obreht is wise to that, and The Tiger's Wife is structured such that each piece links back to those preceding and is integral to the ones following. She takes equal care with each layer, allowing certain pieces to fall close enough together that you get the pleasure of making connections without having her come up behind you to tell you wether you were right or not.
As a novel of myths and stories, The Tiger's Wife is incredibly pared back. I would imagine it would be easy to go overboard with the magical realism when you're dealing with stories a grandfather told his granddaughter, but in this case, the mythology and awe of the stories is underlined by just enough believability that you find yourself wondering, just as Natalia does, whether the man at the cross roads might just be the deathless man. That blend of belief and skepticism is immensely satisfying, as is the novel comes together – seamless on the surface, but with the suggestion that it could all change the next time you read it.
The Tiger's Wife
by Téa Obreht
First published 2011 (cover image shown from Random House edition)