The Tiger’s Wife: A Review (Part I)

When I was young, I remember staying up late to read the gospels.  Light from the hall filtered through the crack in the bedroom door, and  I could put the Bible on the floor and move it from left to right, digesting magical and fantastic stories before I went to sleep.  These stories enraptured me more than anesthetized fairy tales could: there was a darker element, and a realism that fairy tales did not have, despite the fantastical  events.

Later, I discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez in college.  I enjoyed his writing, but could not connect with it at the level I wanted: the culture was so different, and set so closely to modern-day, that I enjoyed it intellectually without connecting emotionally.  It wasn’t until I traveled to Africa and then Costa Rica that I understood the fantastic in new ways.  I heard stories about people possessed and rising from the dead, about eagles giving messages to climbers; I saw superstition firsthand.  Those Bible stories I had read by the light of the hall became more real, more possible because some people still believed that there was possibility beyond what we could see and touch and reason.

The Tiger’s Wife is such a tale, one that is part realism and part myth and part folklore.  Ostensibly, the novel follows Natalia, a doctor from Croatia, in the days following her grandfather’s death.  Yet, in recounting her grandfather’s tales and meeting superstitious families, the novel grows to encompass multiple stories, woven together deftly by Tea Obreht.

“Everything,” says Natalia, “necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man.”  Thus, we are swept from present day into war-torn Croatia, into days of German bombardment, and days fighting the Turks. “One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told me, is of how he became a child again.”

The first, the story of her grandfather becoming a man, recounts a tiger escaped from the zoo during the German bombings.  It travels to a remote village, where it is befriended by a deaf-mute girl.  Here, Obreht sparkles: the deaf-mute girl is married to an abusive husband, yet we see the long and sad story of the husband, and how he eventually came to his anger, came to hate his wife because she embodied his impotence and impossibility.  I am reminded of what fiction does for us, and how it let’s us see with other eyes, how even an abuser becomes human.  Obreht has a deep compassion for almost all her characters, and in telling their stories (indeed, the novel is more a set of interconnected short stories) we see them truly.  But, Natalia’s grandfather befriends the deaf-mute, and becomes enamored with the tiger himself.

Eventually, the grandfather must make a decision: to protect the deaf-mute, and the tiger, or to follow the superstitions of the village.  In this way, the novel cannot help being about faith, as it shows the rituals and superstitions of villagers and travelers, as it touches on the fantastic elements that make this a folk tale as much as a novel.  We see that becoming a man means leaving behind the superstitions of childhood; it means stepping into the world to alter and affect it, hopefully for the better.

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