I've been under the weather all week, but finally gave up the ghost on Thursday, promising myself a day of Victorian languishment on the sofa, indulging in cold cereal and a book. Thus was I able to finish The Tiger's Wife, started the night before as I huddled on that same sofa, shivering with fever and chills.
My physical state, which left me feeling hollow, forlorn, a bit weepy and frustrated, was the ideal condition in which to engage fully in Tea Obreht's Orange Prize-winning The Tiger's Wife. With its feverish mix of war, death, fabulism, violence, disease, bestiality, and the walking dead, I had the perfect companion for my misery. Although my illness outlasted the reading of this novel, I was not less sorry to see the latter end first.
The Tiger's Wife takes a modern-day tragedy - the early to mid 1990's war in the former Yugoslavia - and cloaks it in confounding mythology and brutal metaphor. As the novel opens, it is a few years following the end of the conflict. Borders have been drawn, peace accords signed, and where people rightly belong can be determined by their last names and their accents more easily than by their passports. Newly-formed nations are rebuilding on the foundations of ancient grudges.
We are led through the narrative by Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor on a mission of mercy to an orphanage across "the border." She learns along the way that her beloved grandfather, a celebrated physician afflicted with terminal cancer, has died, ostensibly on his way to find her. In truth, he had inexplicably travelled to a remote village where four teenagers had been killed by a landmine left from the recent war. There he died and though his body was returned to his family, his affects were not, preventing his bereaved wife from mourning him properly and sending his spirit to a restful afterlife. Natalia's efforts to accept her grandfather's death and to recover his belongings bring about powerful memories of stories her grandfather told of his childhood and the fables his village kept alive through generations of invasion, war and deprivation.
Obreht employs the classical allegory of beast - an anthropomorphized tiger escaped from a zoo in 1941- vs. beastly man to illustrate the history of the Balkans. The region is a crossroads of war, a fault-line between East and West, a stew of race, language, religion that has rarely known extended peace. That domesticated tiger- the human collective of the former Yugoslavia- is suddenly tossed into the wild and learns to eat before being eaten. Man as enemy is the political machine, feckless and frightened despite weapons and shelter. But not every man is evil; the tiger's wife and the young boy who loves her - the young boy who would one day become Natalia's grandfather - represent hope, survival, and compassion.
Much has been made of the promise of this extraordinarily mature writer. Obreht's gift with language is undeniable. She draws images of amazing depth and color, her imagination reveling in the richness of Balkan lore and the limitlessness offered by magical realism. Yet, the fable of the tiger's wife would be enough to make this dark and beautiful tale resonate. But all too soon the arc of Obreht's narrative becomes so entangled in her tapestry of fabulism that sadly, it drones. Her style is so lovely and lyrical, but the substance suffers under the weight of endless metaphor.
We never really get to know Natalia, who holds such promise as an interesting character. She is a grown woman yet her edges are dim, as if Obreht wasn't yet ready to inhabit the body and mind of a contemporary adult, from whom all magic has been stripped. We are left wanting to know more about the present reality, how the recent past is shaping the region's future. The tension that reverberates through the villages where Natalia travels signals that although the conflict is over on paper, the suspicions and superstitions run as deep as history is long.
This is not a story as much as it is a patchwork of images. Those images are beautifully rendered but don't add up to a full narrative. The head recognizes the skill, but the heart is left unsatisfied.