Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Tiger's Wife

This book lives up to all the hype. Tea Obrecht is the youngest of the Top 20 Under 40 writers recently named by the New Yorker. She's written a sort of magic realist story set in an unnamed Balkan country. There are three main threads to the tale. First, there is a young doctor who finds out that her grandfather has died just as she is headed out to a mercy mission, vaccinating orphans across the border of her newly partitioned country. Second, there is the story of the Tiger's Wife, which happens in her grandfather's village when he is a young boy. Finally, there is the story of the deathless man, who her grandfather meets when he is a young doctor himself.
All of these stories are engrossing, and have a faint feel of folklore about them. You can see a tiger escaping from the zoo during a bombing, for example, and even that the tiger would not know how to fend for itself and miss human companionship, but there is still an eerie feeling of myth to the Tiger's Wife.
The book brings home the tragedy and pathos of people who have lived next to each other for years, but who still can turn on each other out of fear. It also shines a light on the terrible turmoil and pain of the Balkan peoples, who have suffered through centuries of war. There's a short bit about a house fire, and how people let their animal stock burn to death because it was just easier to let the destruction happen, then rebuild- a legacy of the mindset of those who have had everything taken from them more than once.
The writing doesn't shy from destruction and decay, but I found the writing moving instead of disturbing. Perhaps the weakest point of the story was the young doctor who becomes our lens into this world- we never find out anything about her mother, except that she's alive, or her father. The grandfather is the focal point of the book, and I wish that there had been a way to make him even more the focus.
This book will make you think about the Balkans in a way that you've never done before. It will move you and transport you into a nebulous world where magic just might possibly happen, although it cannot save you.

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