Magical Realism Meets Big Cats In 'The Tiger's Wife'

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
 

In The White Album, Joan Didion writes that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." Though many of today's stories may be limited to 140 character tweets, Tea Obreht, in her novel, The Tiger's Wife, shows how shared mythology (where history meets speculation) is essential, particularly in times of war and loss.

The Tiger's Wife takes place in an unnamed Balkan country — closest in character to the former Yugoslavia, where Obreht was born. Natalia, a young medical student, is on her way to an orphanage in enemy territory when she learns that her beloved grandfather has died. Though his wife had no idea he was sick, Natalia was his confidant — not only was she aware of his cancer; she was privy to his many incredible adventures, the two most fantastic being the stories of the Deathless Man and the Tiger's Wife.

These myths are fresh on Natalia's mind in the village of the orphanage, where superstitions take precedent over medical science. A family of gypsies suffering from a mysterious illness digs away in a vineyard, looking for the bones of a long-lost cousin who was supposedly buried there, albeit haphazardly, in a past war. One family member explains that his spirit, or mora, "doesn't like it here, and he's making us sick. When we find him we'll be on our way." Their insistence gets Natalia thinking about her grandfather. It turns out he died alone in a clinic nearby in Galina — the town where he grew up. As Natalia travels there to collect his belongings, she realizes it was his search for the Deathless Man that brought him back to his birthplace.

Galina's history is also intertwined with the tale of the mythical Tiger's Wife. In the spring of 1941, disturbed by continuous bombing, legend has it that a tiger escaped from the local zoo and came to call the woods near Galina home. Natalia's grandfather, then just a boy and a lover of The Jungle Book, found the tiger beautiful, but the other villagers, terrified, enlisted a slew of hunters to kill it. The tiger found another ally in the battered (and deaf-mute) wife of the butcher. When she became pregnant even after her husband's suspicious disappearance, the villagers took to calling her the Tiger's Wife, convinced she had made a pact with the devil.

Tea Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia, grew up in Cyprus and Egypt, and now lives in Ithaca, N.Y. She was named to The New Yorker's list of the 20 best fiction writers under 40 in 2010.

hide captionTea Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia, grew up in Cyprus and Egypt, and now lives in Ithaca, N.Y. She was named to The New Yorker's list of the 20 best fiction writers under 40 in 2010.

Beowulf Sheehan

The novel shifts back and forth, chapter by chapter, between the story of the tiger and the gypsies, with brief interludes back to Natalia's experience at the orphanage. This constant movement is difficult to adjust to at first, but any discomfort quickly wears off — Obreht has a knack for making these fantastical stories seem entirely plausible. She keeps the reader engaged not only with the Deathless Man's harrowing fate (doomed to roam the Earth for eternity), but the humor in it.

Man or myth, all of the characters in The Tiger's Wife are lovingly rendered. They could be the subject of their own novels — from the Deathless Man to the apothecary down the street. In fact, the only character in The Tiger's Wife we never really get to know is Natalia, who functions less as an active character than an interpreter of her grandfather's life.

The Tiger's Wife rests securely in the genre of magical realism, inciting comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even Kafka. In terms of structure and pacing, Obreht still has a way to go — the conclusion of the novel comes at the reader too abruptly, leaving us startled. But her attention to detail in creating a believable world — in spite of its magical elements — is the work of a mature storyteller.

Natalia's conclusion at the end of the novel explains that the truth of these stories is less important than the symbolism they provide. She wonders: "If the situation had been different, if the people of Galina had been more aware of their own ephemeral isolation, more aware that it was only a matter of time before war tightened around them — their regard for the Tiger and his wife might have been more cursory. Isn't it strange, they might have said, here is a kind of love story, and then moved on to some other point of gossip." Similarly, whether The Tiger's Wife is the product of Obreht's personal history or her active imagination, it doesn't matter. She has lifted an entire world steeped in tradition and superstition and placed it securely on the page, leaving no detail unwritten — quite the accomplishment considering The Tiger's Wife is her debut.

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker's Book Bench, The Economist, The Daily Beast, Bookslut, Time Out New York, Bookforum and more. She is currently at work on her first book, on women and horror movies.

Excerpt: 'The Tiger's Wife'

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
 
The Tiger's Wife
By Tea Obreht
Hardcover, 352 pages
Random House
List Price: $25

The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death. That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and the windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river. The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past—the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else—and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back. For this reason, the living bring their own rituals to a standstill: to welcome the newly loosed spirit, the living will not clean, will not wash or tidy, will not remove the soul's belongings for forty days, hoping that sentiment and longing will bring it home again, encourage it to return with a message, with a sign, or with forgiveness.

If it is properly enticed, the soul will return as the days go by, to rummage through drawers, peer inside cupboards, seek the tactile comfort of its living identity by reassessing the dish rack and the doorbell and the telephone, reminding itself of functionality, all the time touching things that produce sound and make its presence known to the inhabitants of the house. Speaking quietly into the phone, my grandma reminded me of this after she told me of my grandfather's death. For her, the forty days were fact and common sense, knowledge left over from burying two parents and an older sister, assorted cousins and strangers from her hometown, a formula she had recited to comfort my grandfather whenever he lost a patient in whom he was particularly invested—a superstition, according to him, but something in which he had indulged her with less and less protest as old age had hardened her beliefs.

My grandma was shocked, angry because we had been robbed of my grandfather's forty days, reduced now to thirty-seven or thirty-eight by the circumstances of his death. He had died alone, on a trip away from home; she hadn't known that he was already dead when she ironed his clothes the day before, or washed the dishes that morning, and she couldn't account for the spiritual consequences of her ignorance. He had died in a clinic in an obscure town called Zdrevkov on the other side of the border; no one my grandma had spoken to knew where Zdrevkov was, and when she asked me, I told her the truth: I had no idea what he had been doing there.

"You're lying," she said.

"Bako, I'm not."

"He told us he was on his way to meet you."

"That can't be right," I said.

He had lied to her, I realized, and lied to me. He had taken advantage of my own cross-country trip to slip away—a week ago, she was saying, by bus, right after I had set out myself—and had gone off for some reason unknown to either of us. It had taken the Zdrevkov clinic staff three whole days to track my grandma down after he died, to tell her and my mother that he was dead, arrange to send his body. It had arrived at the City morgue that morning, but by then, I was already four hundred miles from home, standing in the public bathroom at the last service station before the border, the pay phone against my ear, my pant legs rolled up, sandals in hand, bare feet slipping on the green tiles under the broken sink.

Somebody had fastened a bent hose onto the faucet, and it hung, nozzle down, from the boiler pipes, coughing thin streams of water onto the floor. It must have been going for hours: water was everywhere, flooding the tile grooves and pooling around the rims of the squat toilets, dripping over the doorstep and into the dried-up garden behind the shack. None of this fazed the bathroom attendant, a middle-aged woman with an orange scarf tied around her hair, whom I had found dozing in a corner chair and dismissed from the room with a handful of bills, afraid of what those seven missed beeper pages from my grandma meant before I even picked up the receiver.

I was furious with her for not having told me that my grandfather had left home. He had told her and my mother that he was worried about my goodwill mission, about the inoculations at the Brejevina orphanage, and that he was coming down to help. But I couldn't berate my grandma without giving myself away, because she would have told me if she had known about his illness, which my grandfather and I had hidden from her. So I let her talk, and said nothing about how I had been with him at the Military Academy of Medicine three months before when he had found out, or how the oncologist, a lifelong colleague of my grandfather's, had shown him the scans and my grandfather had put his hat down on his knee and said, "Fuck. You go looking for a gnat and you find a donkey."

I put two more coins into the slot, and the phone whirred. Sparrows were diving from the brick ledges of the bathroom walls, dropping into the puddles at my feet, shivering water over their backs. The sun outside had baked the early afternoon into stillness, and the hot, wet air stood in the room with me, shining in the doorway that led out to the road, where the cars at border control were packed in a tight line along the glazed tarmac. I could see our car, left side dented from a recent run-in with a tractor, and Zóra sitting in the driver's seat, door propped open, one long leg dragging along the ground, glances darting back toward the bathroom more and more often as she drew closer to the customs booth.

"They called last night," my grandma was saying, her voice louder. "And I thought, they've made a mistake. I didn't want to call you until we were sure, to worry you in case it wasn't him. But your mother went down to the morgue this morning." She was quiet, and then: "I don't understand, I don't understand any of it."

"I don't either, Bako," I said.

"He was going to meet you."

"I didn't know about it."

Then the tone of her voice changed. She was suspicious, my grandma, of why I wasn't crying, why I wasn't hysterical. For the first ten minutes of our conversation, she had probably allowed herself to believe that my calm was the result of my being in a foreign hospital, on assignment, surrounded, perhaps, by colleagues. She would have challenged me a lot sooner if she had known that I was hiding in the border-stop bathroom so that Zóra wouldn't overhear.

She said, "Haven't you got anything to say?"

"I just don't know, Bako. Why would he lie about coming to see me?"

"You haven't asked if it was an accident," she said. "Why haven't you asked that? Why haven't you asked how he died?"

"I didn't even know he had left home," I said. "I didn't know any of this was going on."

"You're not crying," she said.

"Neither are you."

Excerpted from The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. Copyright © 2011 by Tea Obreht. Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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