(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)
Here are the elements of Téa Obreht’s debut novel that really worked for me:
* Her depiction of a society saturated by war, violence, and loss is solid.
“We’re in a war,” he said. “The story of this war — dates, names, who started it, why — that belongs to everyone. Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before.”
* And, alongside this darkness which permeates the prose, she inserts moments of beauty and connection — the next two sentences I’ve quoted actually do follow immediately after those quoted above — and, in particular the fondness between Natalia and her grandfather, who share this moment he speaks of:
“But something like this — this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. Only to us.”
(I don’t want to give away the moment, because it’s quite wonderful, but I will say that it’s connected with the next thing that I enjoyed about this novel.)
* Her inclusion of animals throughout, concretely and figuratively. I love the kind of stories that inspired Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: zoos in wartime, such touching, heartbreaking tales.
“(He was not the only one: years later they would write about wolves running down the street, a polar bear standing in the river. They would write about how flights of parrots were seen for weeks above the city, how a prominent engineer and his family lived an entire month off a zebra carcass.)”
* Her depiction of something-like-Yugoslavia-but-it’s-not-named-outright contains familiar and unfamiliar bits; I could appreciate the differences between ‘here’ and ‘there’ and still feel wholly engaged (if now saddled with an unreasonable craving for baklava).
“The tulumbe are there, golden and soft and dropping, and the baklava sticks to my mouth, and the roasted apple with the walnuts is lovely and it melts under the fork and all these things come with the quince brandy that burns your throat between bites, and I am a little drunk, now, and watching the fire in the sky over Marhan, I am missing your grandmother’s cooking, because her pastries are better than this.”
* It’s clear that she loves storytelling, the way that stories intersect and layer and transform in the mouths (and hands) of other tellers. It’s a favourite theme of mine, so here are two quotes about it:
“Whatever the details, the consensus is that there was an immediate awareness of [his] death … but many of the people telling you the story couldn’t have been alive when it happened, and then it becomes clear that they have all been telling each other different stories too.”
“Truths, half-truths, utter delusions drifted like shadows into conversations he was not intended to overhear.”
* And, of all stories, it seems that she loves folktales most of all. In the passage I quote next, she delights in the variety of tales told about this character, and the wonder is contagious. The grandfather’s love of Kipling’s stories had me reaching for my childhood copy of Mowgli’s Tales and that’s not a collection that I revisit often (er, ever).
“Ask someone from Galina about Dariša the Bear, and the conversation will begin with a story that isn’t true: Dariša was raised by bears — or, he ate only bears. In some versions…”
And then she talks about those versions, and follows up with “In the end…”, and then continues with “My personal favorite…”, finally summarizing with “all these variations come down to one truth, however: Dariša was the greatest bear hunter in the old kingdom.” I like the playfulness of it, the simultaneous insistence that there is — and is not — a reliable truth therein.
These episodes, clearly inspired by folklore she has admired and adored, are what stands out most clearly for me in The Tiger’s Wife.
* And, that’s a fitting link, because the final element of this novel which struck me was the tiger’s wife. I love the idea of it.
Which brings me to this:
“The tiger’s wife.”
“What has that got to do with anything?” he says.
Which brings me to what didn’t work for me in The Tiger’s Wife; even though I enjoyed — even loved — some of the elements that I’ve mentioned above, the whole did not resonate for me.
And I was easily distracted by loose elements in the construction. I love reading folk tales and fairy tales (and this novel reminded me that it’s been too long since I read some). The simplicity of the language broadened by the archetypal images and relationships has an inherent appeal. But even though a passage like this one struck a note of wonder with me, and I wanted to settle into it, I found myself stumbling on the mechanics, whereas I should have slid across the words into the story.
“And the apothecary — tooth puller, dream interpreter, measurer of medicine, keeper of the magnificent scarlet ibis — was the reliable magician, the only kind of magician my grandfather could ever admire. Which is why, in a way, this story starts and ends with him.”
I’m not certain if, in this case, the construction is solid, but I stumbled on it, and I paused to ask questions; simply being unsure disrupted my reading. (I think the first sentence’s final phrase modifies, as a whole, the word ‘magician’, which, in turn, is actually the apothecary, who is the antecedent for the next sentence, rather than the grandfather, who actually does begin and end the story). That’s unnecessarily complicated, and it’s a random example — so it can’t help but seem petty to discuss it in any detail — but in a story with a tiger, I don’t want to stop to think about antecedents: I should be running.
And I’ve had tiger-struggles before. I read Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi twice, with different tiger-thoughts on each reading, and I ended up completely and entirely frustrated with the novel but had some incredibly stimulating discussions about it with people who loved it and found more there.
So I’m rather hoping that someone will take me by the tail and show me what I’m missing in The Tiger’s Wife.
But I need something more to connect these elements. It doesn’t have to be something concrete (I don’t need a desk, thank you very much ::nods in Nicole Krauss’ direction::). It can be very small, even a word (‘zigzag’ worked for me in The Swimmer).
But something more than the tiger, or perhaps I simply need more of the tiger, or an uninterrupted view of the tiger: something. I can see patches of fur — lush and tactile, breath beneath — but it gets blurry at the edges and I yearn for shape, even simple pencil strokes to outline these powerful elements.
Originality Usually the tiger gets all the press, his wife stuck at the kitchen sink
Readability Folk tale segments are strong
Author’s voice First and final pages are beautiful, less polished in between
Narrative structure Time and place shift, story and reality collide
Gaffes Some loose construction
Expectations High critically, though I wasn’t fond of her 20Under40 contribution