Sorry about the prolonged hiatus! It turns out that deciding to quit your job and move to Chicago to be a writer takes up a lot of time that could have been spent reviewing Pacific Rim or Luther or something else with Idris Elba in it. July was a panic of goodbyes and packing and discarding the accumulated Stuff of Life, and I’m still settling in, still grappling with the reality of uprooting my life and moving it to another city. A city with winter. But now I’m back, and writing is back, and it’s time to talk about books and movies and other such things.
When I think of the craft of storytelling, I often compare it to weaving, with characters, plot elements, and recurring imagery as threads bound together to create something intricate and beautiful. Writers weave tapestries out of moments of life, images of violence, the voices of characters, and the reader is drawn inexorably to something whole and emotionally satisfying. There is a special kind of joy that comes from seeing all the threads of narrative converge and the finished image at last revealed.
The Tiger’s Wife is very much a woven story, a tapestry of convergence. Natalia’s story, as she tries to understand her grandfather and why he chose to die in a remote village far from home, intertwines with the stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, and those stories are supplemented by still other stories nested within them. It’s not meta, exactly, but Story, it’s importance and relevance, it’s living nature, is a central theme of the book. It is Natalia’s story and it is her grandfather’s. It is present and past, mystery and myth. The deathless man and the tiger’s wife are set against the bombing of Belgrade, glimpses of life under Tito, borders shifting with the collapse of empires. It is a vast story contained in a slim volume of words, and finds space to grapple with profound questions of destiny, death, and truth.
Though the two central characters are both physicians, this novel is about death, or more specifically, how we die. Our protagonists are in the business of fighting death, gaining mastery over it, and the narrative often confronts them with situations that show contempt for that mastery, like the diggers who refuse medical treatment for their illness, or the NATO bombing campaign, or the riddle of a man who simply will not die. Natalia grapples with this in the form of her own grandfather’s death, retracing his steps forward to the foreign village where he died, and backward to the remote mountain village where he grew up. The story is driven by the metaphysical question of why, but the narrative itself is deeply physical. Obreht provides no easy confirmations of magic or evidence of life after death. The most blatantly supernatural element, the deathless man, is experienced second-hand, through the grandfather’s tales, and even then everything is rooted in the material world, so much so that the clear defiance of natural law is frustrating both to the reader and to the characters. Obreht’s imagery gives her story the weight and presence of the real world. I am left with indelible images of the fevered touch of the diggers in the orchard, the profound cold of the mountain village, the sight of blood on snow. Her command of language is poetic, but also visceral; you feel the truth of it in your gut.
My favorite part of the novel on this first read through was, as seems appropriate, the story of the tiger’s wife. Something about a tiger haunting a mountain village during the fierce winter before World War II, the mixture of rational explanation by Natalia and the demon-haunted terror of the villagers creates the best kind of legend, one that even stripped of supernatural explanation is remarkable, thrilling, and beautiful. In the midst of the villagers’ fear of what they do not understand, the boy who would become Natalia’s grandfather learns about beauty and the proximity of death, and that sometimes no amount of effort or love can save those doomed to die. Framed as a historical investigation by the backward looking Natalia, the story also includes brief histories of characters such as the butcher and the apothecary, men integral to the grandfather’s story but about whom he probably knew little in life. They are revealed as heroes of their own tales, tales which lead inevitably to the winter-locked mountains and the tiger. Their stories are their own, but are also intricately woven into the greater story of the novel. There are many threads, but only one tapestry.
The Tiger’s Wife satisfies a deep narrative longing in me. It is rich with history and humanity. Obreht’s stories and substories are keenly crafted and transport me to another time and place, packing multiple layers of detailed narrative into a novel of less than 400 pages. Téa Obreht has created something complex without being complicated, deep without being unfathomable. It’s a story that can be enjoyed once or reread and studied closely for greater rewards. It is a true accomplishment.