The Tiger’s Wife is not about the tiger’s wife. It’s about a story, a quest, history, and incidentally also a certain wild animal with stripes. Obreht juggles the different subplots deftly hinting at underlying connections, subterranean currents, the weight of history and the push of circumstances. You can truly feel for the individual, the lone molecule in an ocean whose life is determined by accidents.
Obreht’s debut novel is assured and well-crafted; chapters are structured in a way that leaves you with a feeling of suspense. With alternating strands and multiple storylines, the reader is pushed to go on reading. At the heart of this novel is a quest, just like all good stories. Strike that out. There are several quests encased inside each other like Russian dolls—a quest inside a quest inside a quest. The crust of the story is of Dr.Natalia Stephanović of erstwhile Yugoslavia. This later divides into a physical quest for her grandfather’s personal effects and a metaphysical quest for her grandfather’s story. The second (this ordering is entirely mine—feel free to disagree) is her grandfather’s quest for Shere Khan/tiger. The third and final quest is of the deathless man who wants different things (water, to die, and Natalia’s grandfather’s copy of the Jungle Book) at different times in the narrative. All these wants are parallel and valid. These quests and subquests intersect and interplay against each other creating a fine tapestry of stories.
Obreht is not a fabulist or a magic realist. Her stories border on the surreal but are in fact very rooted in reality. The reader can never really give the author a willing sense of disbelief. And we take the author’s word for it that Natalia’s grandfather has had an encounter with a deathless man. In the olden days, such things were possible. The world was gossamer light and some walls were porous. It’s the same sense of belief we bring to a grandmother’s tale.
Obreht is almost like a ventriloquist: she changes her voice to suit the narrative thread. When she talks about the village life of her grandfather, she resorts to a gossipmonger’s tone that inflates the events so much that you can’t take it seriously. Moreover, the first person narrative is reserved for Natalia’s own story adding a certain modernity and immediacy to this part of the narrative, whereas the third person narrative is reserved for all other narratives effectively creating an emotional distance. Obreht’s voice is sharp, relies on tradition but also knows that we stand on our own at the end. The author shows her post modernist leanings by openly confessing to not knowing many things herself. She turns the novel into a journey of discovery for both herself and the reader.
Obreht truly comes on her own when describing the effects of war on the psyche of the people – from denial to protest to fear to fearlessness and to, the last bastion, the absurd. If there ever was a ‘five stages of grief’ theory for war, then this is it.
The most delightful bits are the encounter between her grandfather and the deathless man. Natalia’s doctor grandfather’s scepticism is so great that Gavran Gaile, the deathless man has to provide proof of his inability to die. It’s fabulously far-fetched and the stuff of good stories. The fact that this is happening in some war-torn far off East European country aids in hanging on to our sense of detachment.
The only flaw, if you can still call it so, is the long digression into back stories of some the characters (Darias and Luka’s stories). Now, a novel thrives on digressions but somewhere the steam runs out when talking about it in such physical and psychological detail. However, in exploring these back stories, Obreht throws us another surprise. She is the master of an important aspect of growing up–that defining moment that changes a child’s life. The impact on a child’s mind of that one transformative experience, the one that defines the person he/she becomes in later life. She describes the event in all its psychological glory that you know you are reading a master not a debutante.
The Tiger’s Wife is a blend of the old-world storytelling and new-world psychological realism. She explores some old old themes like war, love, childhood, grandfather-grandchild relationship, the fascination for the unknown, and yet never loses her sense of wonder. Therein lies her accomplishment.