I sometimes joke, with just a kernel of truth, that the secret to happiness is low expectations. And perhaps it’s the same with books. I had heard so much buzz about Tea Obreht’s debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, I was excited to crack it open and ready to devour it. The NY Times raved; click here to read that review. The Christian Science Monitor positively gushed; click here to read that review. Even Book Pages, which I picked up at my local library, led me to believe that I had, absolutely had to read this book.
So I did. And I must say, I was slightly disappointed. Perhaps it was just my “reading mood”–I really felt like curling up with a long, atmospheric narrative into which I could escape for awhile. Instead, I found myself laboring to comprehend a novel that is structured like a set of Russian dolls, or as Kapka Kassabova calls it in her review in the Guardian (click here for review), a “matryoshka-style narrative.”
I read Kassabova’s review after I finished The Tiger’s Wife; I was looking for some explication of its many references. I wish I had read the review before however, as it did shed some light on the novel for me.
Quick plot review: Natalia is narrating the story. She is in an unnamed Balkan country that has recently emerged from the ravages of civil war. Considering that the author was born in Belgrade, I just assumed the setting is, or could be, the former Yugoslavia. Natalia is a doctor who has crossed the new border into what was once her own country, but is now former enemy territory, to bring vaccines to a mainly suspicious and resistant audience. An arduous physical journey, this is also quite an emotional trip for Natalia because she has just found out that her beloved grandfather has died.
So that’s the frame of the book. But now it’s the reader’s turn to travel as Natalia takes us on many journeys by way of stories that her grandfather has told her, the two main tales being about a tiger that is, or is not, a lot like Shere Khan from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and a deathless man. There are many other characters, and other tales also; at times I felt like I was reading short stories, but I knew that (I hoped that?) they would all come together in the end.
I think they did, but not as convincingly as I was hoping they would. By the time I closed the book, I was just glad to be done with it. Oh, that sounds harsh, and don’t get me wrong; this is a very good book in many ways. Obreht’s writing is seriously impressive, and she does know how to tell a story, building suspense along the way. However, at times I felt like I had entered a maze of fabulous tales reminiscent of…what?
I don’t know what.
And perhaps that was part of my problem. I felt like I was missing a lot by not understanding what I assumed were many references–cultural, folkloric, religious, and otherwise. So I stumbled around the maze and emerged dazed, and ultimately a little disappointed.