The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

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The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A richly textured first novel that includes both a modern day search for the truth behind the death of a young doctor's grandfather in Yugoslavia, and the myths and folk tales that are told in the region.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0297859017

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Téa Obreht's 'The Tiger's Wife' comes with a fair degree of hype from the US, and largely it lives up to it, which is no small achievement. The main story is set in Yugoslavia and explores a young doctor, Natalia, seeking for the truth about her grandfather's death, while on a mission to deliver much needed medical aid to an orphanage in the war-ravaged Balkans. But what sets this book apart is the intricate weaving of reality with the myths and stories of the region. In particular there are two myths that represent a good chunk of the page count: the story of a tiger who has escaped from captivity after the World War two bombing of Belgrade and who has settled near a remote mountain village where Natalia's grandfather is growing up, and who develops a strange relationship with a deaf-mute girl who becomes known as 'the tiger's wife'; and a mysterious story of the 'Deathless Man' whom the grandfather encounters at various points in his life who appears to have the power to foresee others' death without being able to die himself.

Lovers of folk stories will love this combination, while those with a lack of tolerance for the more magical storytelling genre will inevitable find less appeal here. If you enjoyed Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi', another tiger-featuring imaginative book, then this will be right up your street.

It's a surprisingly ambitious structure for such a young, first-time author and in most respects, she carries it off with aplomb, although I suspect that with a little more experience, some of the storytelling could have been tightened up slightly which would have enhanced the impact. At times the stories seem to drift on a bit. There were certainly times when it had me completely wrapped up in the stories but at others I found myself more admiring than loving it.

At the heart of the book are the stories and superstitions that people have, particularly about trying to make sense of death, but also of war and conflict. Both of the main folk tales involve dealing with fear and ignorance. In part these stories survive in spite of, and perhaps because of conflict, but no matter who owns the lands, the stories remain with the people. Evidence of the cultural mix is abundant in the myths themselves - one reason for the eponymous tiger's wife's ostracism from village life is that she is a Muslim in a Christian village. Yet part of the message seems to be that 'you can take away our land, but you cannot take away our stories', while at the same time the conflicts themselves give rise to even more folk tales to make sense of things.

At times, Obreht writes with terrific beauty and always with a rich imagination and sense of love both to the Balkan region and in the relationship between Natalia and her grandfather, a good doctor himself who carries with him a tattered copy of 'The Jungle Book'. She also concentrates on the human story rather than getting dragged into the politics of the region, which is a good thing.

It's a magical and beautiful set of stories. She has the ability to describe rich lives in a few short pages, and it's here that the book positively soars. However, at times also the stories seem to take on a life of their own and would benefit from reigning in a little. I'd urge you to read this though and make up your own mind. There's no doubt though that Obreht is an exciting new talent.

'The Tiger's Wife' is nominated for this year's Orange Prize. We'd also recommend checking out Room by Emma Donoghue and Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch both of which also feature on the list.

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Buy The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht at

Booklists.jpg The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht is in the Orange Prize 2011.


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