Saturday, May 4, 2013

Review: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife has literally been everywhere for the longest time. This in itself is not surprising - Ms. Obreht is the youngest-ever winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, and this fact is even more fascinating considering that The Tiger's Wife is her debut novel. Furthermore, she has been chosen as one of New Yorker's 20 Under 40 (aka, 20 promising authors who are younger than 40).  Not to mention, everyone and their mom bought a copy of The Tiger's Book, its exotic-looking cover beckoning from the shelf of your friendly neighborhood Barnes and Noble.

On the one hand, I am glad Tea Obreht sold so many books. She is a talented writer, and I am sure she is bound to be a great one after her skills receive some more polishing. Her prose has an ethereal quality about it, which is fitting for a book that revolves so much around folklore and magic. Its elements are deeply engrossing - whether its the contemporary story of a young doctor from a worn-torn Balkan country facing the horrors of war while seeking answers about her grandfathers' death, or the two myths that talk of a mysterious tiger and his human companion, and a man who has been denied the right to die.

It is all very fascinating, however the book ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Much of it has to do with the structure - Obreht's prose is quite wordy, and as soon as you get engrossed in one of the three prominent plot lines, the chapter finishes and you are forced to plunge into another one. I found this to be a particular problem, as I felt quite distanced from the majority of the book. I also couldn't but mentally compare it to Katherine Neville's The Eight, a book quite unlike The Tiger's Wife, for sure, but one that handled multiple storylines more than skillfully, building one on top of the other for a unity of effect I'm sure even Poe would be thrilled with. Obreht, on the other hand, simply meshes them together which, unfortunately, results in an ending I found very underwhelming and honestly, quite confusing.

Another thing that I feel inclined to speak when it comes to the novel is its treatment of the ex-Yugoslavian countries and the warfare that serves as its background, particularly since I happen to come from these parts. Obreht consciously misnames (or flat out refuses to name) geographical locations, which, coupled with anachronisms and fabrication of myth and folklore, effectively reduces the unfortunate history of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia to legend, producing a sense of all-pervading vagueness and distrust of history. While I may feel inclined to reason that this particular instance of Orientalization (or Balkanization, if you will) works toward painting a version of history blind of national and ethnic particularities, underscoring the essence of humanity, pain and loss, I can very much see how some, especially those that like to keep their hold on history firm and as unambivalent as possible, will and have found this irritating and even disrespectful.

The Tiger's Wife is a mixed bag for sure. The book is almost saved by its enchanting eloquence and prose, which effectively overshadows what its trying to do and how it comes close to failing at it miserably. I think it is interesting to compare it to the prose of Anne Rice, which, although quite purple at times, never really detracts from the experience, as the author's intents mostly lie in the realm of entertainment. However, even if one gets the sense that Tea Obreht bit off more than she could chew, her debut novel makes for an often-mesmerizing reading experience and has made this blogger excited for the young author's sophomore effort.



bermudaonion said...

I met Tea and thought she was wonderful so I've been disappointed in the reviews I've read of her book. Most of them have agreed with you.

Nikola said...

Thanks for the comment, bermudaonion! You're so lucky! I would LOVE to have a chance to meet Tea - I really do have so much respect for her, and I would love to discuss some of the details.

Blodeuedd said...

Hm...does the library have it? *goes to check*

Nikola said...

It's definitely a good one to go to the library for! :)