Friday, June 01, 2012

'The Tiger's Wife' by Téa Obreht

1 June 2012

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ by Téa Obreht, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. I was amazed to discover that this excellent book is Obreht’s first novel, and that she was only born in 1985. She was raised in the former Yugoslavia until 1992 when her family moved, first to Cyprus and then to Egypt, where she learned to speak English, before emigrating to the United States in 1997. ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ is set in the modern day Balkans where Natalia is a doctor attempting to help casualties of war on both sides of a border while remembering her grandfather and recounting to us episodes from his long life. Though I had heard much praise for the novel, I feared the setting sounded bleak but Obreht creates a mythic fairy-tale quality, even in the contemporary scenes in which place names and real people are never directly mentioned (Belgrade is simply ‘The City’). And as she delves (non-sequentially) into episodes from the past, a jigsaw puzzle plot emerges which seems to come from a tradition of Balkan folklore and storytelling. The tiger of the title escaped from Belgrade zoo after the Nazi bombings and survived in the forests outside Natalia’s grandfather’s village. This premise of a liberated zoo tiger obviously reminds you of Yan Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’ and there are similarities in the way Obreht uses a painstakingly realistic tiger (rather than a magical realist device). But ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ is quite a different novel and weaves an enticing spell around the reader. It’s a very clever and enjoyable book and Téa Obreht is clearly a talent to watch.



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