The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht
The Tiger’s Wife is an outstanding ambitious book of depth and meaning that draws links between a troubled aftermath in a war-torn region with the backdrop of superstition and myths. There is a theme adopted throughout the book that opposing positions are regularly confronted, such as modern technology and medicine, with fables and folklore. This contrast also relates to the novel’s location which is within former Yugoslavia but with families now spread across two unspecified countries where borders have been defined with bloodshed.
Natalia is a young doctor visiting the region on a humanitarian mission to establish a clinic at an orphanage and inoculate the children. She faces the task of administering modern antibiotics to the children while the villagers are digging over a field seeking the bones of a relation, buried 12 years earlier. Rather than feel secure with medical treatment, they feel they need to focus on collecting all the bones and ceremoniously bury the body so the illnesses that have befallen their village can be lifted.
Natalia is soon informed of her Grandfather’s death and her memories of him as a doctor and the stories he regaled her with, come to the fore, and she sees the dichotomy of a man of medicine with a belief in fables as she holds onto his cherished copy of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.
“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life. … 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 background to the stories is told at different time periods and the grandfather’s connection with them is fascinating and thought-provoking.
The deathless man was the nephew of death himself, who came to heal but ended up carrying the souls of the dead to the other side. A story that possibly resonated with his medical profession and the contrast is once again evident to see, between healing and death.
An escaped tiger after months of roaming the countryside took refuge just outside the little village of Galina. Sometimes coming closer but mainly staying out of reach. The butcher of Galina, Luka, had a wife who was known as “the deaf-mute girl,” a wife he subjected to vicious beatings. After Luka died from what is believed to have been the tiger, his wife became known as “the tiger’s wife” and she is known to frequent a barn where the tiger has been seen. When she is recognised as being pregnant the villagers claim that she’s carrying the tiger’s baby. Natalia’s grandfather as a young boy knows the tiger’s wife and is the only villager unafraid of the tiger but he has a secret that he maintains from everyone. He sees the manifestation of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book and his imagination like many of the villagers is set to proffer another myth.
The novel is unique and wonderfully delivered with exceptional story-telling from Téa Obreht. It achieved a wonderful balance of interfacing religion, culture, new and old, reality and superstition, war and peace, destruction and rebuilding, contemporary medicine and traditional healing. A story where the reader can interpret the meaning as they wish and project deeper meaning into the two fables.
I would highly recommend reading this book and I feel it is a worthy prize-winner.