Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife

Téa Obreht grew up in the former Yugoslavia, and she channels her experiences through her descriptions of the disorienting nature of change. The narrator of The Tiger’s Wife muses about how in the wake of a civil war that ripped her unnamed country apart, historical places and people that were once associated with her nation have been reappropriated, turning familiar things foreign. Throughout her debut novel, Obreht also works to keep her readers disoriented, blending myth and history and weaving characters too complex to be categorized simply as heroes or villains.

The Tiger’s Wife follows Natalia, a young doctor who learns that her grandfather has died while she’s across the border on a mission to deliver vaccines to an orphanage. The narrative spans her present actions, her memories of her grandfather, and stories about him and his home village, woven together by tales of a man that cannot die and a young, battered woman who forms a bond with an escaped zoo tiger.

Obreht was the youngest person on The New Yorker’s list of the 20 best fiction writers under 40, and The Tiger’s Wife lives up to its hype. The book provides an intimate view of life in a place where war is always close to the horizon. She obligingly mentions commonly known hazards like teens being blown up by landmines years after the weapons serve any military relevance. The Tiger’s Wife also provides a deeper look at the less obvious effects of war, like teens turning contraband imports into status symbols, groups of people defiantly spending all night in coffee houses while air-raid sirens blare, and zoo animals killing themselves and each other as they succumb to unbearable stress.

The characters are as complicated as the conflicts around them. Obreht introduces an abusive butcher, then spends a chapter explaining how culture and bad luck kept him from living the life he wanted, transforming him into a contemptible but tragic character. A bear hunter whom Natalia’s grandfather adored becomes an enemy when he begins stalking the tiger.

The conflicts at work aren’t just between nations or individuals, but between science, faith, and legend. Natalia is furious with a family who believes their sickness can’t be cured by her medicine, and will only be relieved if they dig up a relative’s bones. As she narrates the book, she constantly strives to scientifically dissect the tall tales and myths to find the hard truths beneath. Yet she eventually acknowledges that a good myth can bring comfort in the face of terrible loss, making it more powerful than facts.

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