Sunday 24 July 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

Our narrator's grandfather is dead. She's en route to an orphanage, about to vaccinate the children, when she finds out. It's an orphanage across the border, in the Other Country - the one that Her Country has fought a war with. And she continues her journey, reminiscing about her grandfather, and stories, family stories, local myths...

The Tiger's Wife moves from one story to another - one moment, we're reading about her grandfather's encounter with the deathless man, the next it's the story of the zoo during The War, or the tiger (there are several tigers in the novel), or the bearhunter...

We're never quite sure which former Yugoslavian country we're in, but it does not seem to matter much. Stories are stories.

There are many things to like - and perhaps even love - about this book. It has a talent for including fairy-tale-like stories in a normal narrative. Many of the characters get a tale that sounds a bit like a fairy tale. Compared to movies, this is probably closest to Amelie, or Life Is Beautiful, or A Very Long Engagement in tone. (In book terms, I suspect Salman Rushdie is the closest writer I have read).

Some of the above are movies and stories I love, and yet, I did not feel the same way about this book. Don't get me wrong: I really enjoyed many parts. If any of the characters had said "Life is like a box of chocolates", I would have nodded, and thought, yes, in this book, it is. But that's also what is wrong with the story, for me. This is a book about a war-ravaged region, about great tragedies, angry mobs, violence, and some truly horrific events. And yet, it is coated in an aesthetic that is a bit romantic, nostalgic and bittersweet. I find bittersweet a difficult flavour to enjoy, especially when it comes to the great disasters and human capacity to bring about tragedy. This book makes war look cute, not gritty. It gives forced marriages and wife beating a kind of golden, nostalgic glow...

Basically, it feels like violence and war, the HDR photograph, scored by Yann Tiersen.

I don't quite feel this is appropriate.

Some people will argue that being able to laugh and poke fun at something is a part of growing pains, of gaining distance and perspective on it. I can't argue with that. Sometimes, it works (Tales From The Golden Age is a Romanian movie that does more or less that to Ceaucescu's reign). In this particular case, it did not work for me.

Some notes about reading this book: I read it whenever I had time, for whatever amount of time I had. Which means I did not read it chapter by chapter. This was a mistake. The story moves from character to character, never sticking with a narrative for very long, and is only held together by fairly thin framing. Often I would find myself trying to remember who I was reading about, and why, and what their role was. It can be quite a bewildering reading experience.

Another thing that I found a bit awkward is that I kept waiting for a resolution, some answers... well, this was not forthcoming. Or maybe I just did not find the resolution fitting for the story.

All in all, it is a book with some lovely stories, some lovely moments, a lot of sweetener applied to some horrible stories and bitter moments. Well written (albeit without ever justifying its sometimes omniscient narrative voice, which also jumps from one first person narrator to another), but not altogether a great book. Too sweet for its subject matter for me, and a bit too helter skelter.

Rating: 3/5

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