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The Tiger’s Wife

June 13, 2012

The same week that Bookgazing admired the story-within-another-story structure of Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, a friend of mine put it in my hands and told me I wanted to read it. So I did, in the time that I had, which was sitting in various doctor’s offices and waiting rooms.

I have developed a visceral reaction to doctor’s offices–they make me want to flee—and I think that my barely suppressed panic affected my reaction to this novel. All the stories seemed so bleak, and the world so hopeless.

The Tiger’s Wife is set in the war-torn Balkans and centers on a young doctor’s, Natalia’s, journey to put her grandfather and all his stories to rest, to sort out the real from the imagined. Although she finds the origin of his two most important stories—the tiger’s wife and the deathless man—she discovers that the stories are real in some ways, that the imagination can sometimes have more power to shape the world than the literally true.

I did like the way that, hearing the stories, I got the traditional telling, Natalia’s point of view, sometimes the tiger’s point of view, and the way the story had changed over time:
“No one would ever guess, not even after the blacksmith’s clothed bones were found in disarray, many years later, that the two of them waited in that tree until the tiger pulled the blacksmith’s legs off and dragged them away, waited until nightfall to climb down and retrieve the gun from what was left of the blacksmith. No one would guess that they did not even bury the unlucky blacksmith, whose brain was eventually picked over by crows, and to whose carcass the tiger would return again and again, until he had learned something about the taste of man, about the freshness of human meat, which was different now, in snow, than it had been in the heat of summer.”

When Natalia goes to collect her grandfather’s belongings and find out how he died, her situation encapsulates, in miniature, the whole plot of the novel:
“’A tall man,” I said. “With glasses, and a hat and coat. You don’t remember him sitting with anyone at all?’
‘With a young man, maybe?’
He shook his head.
‘They would have been arguing,’ I said.
‘This is a veterans’ slum, what do you think people do all day?’
….’I barely remember him, let alone who he was with.’ He went on, ‘And I wouldn’t go door-to-door round here, Doctor. On the chance that someone might have seen him. Not with that accent.’
….He…handed me a pen, watched me sign, Natalia Stefanovic, which I did slowly, hoping he would make the connection. But his eyes told me he had already done this on his own.”
She is from a town on the other side of a shifting line in the lines of recent wars, and someone she loves has died and her family doesn’t know what happened to him, which is far from rare. So many people in this novel are left to make up their own stories of what must have happened to their loved ones that one more doesn’t cause a stir. As the “deathless man” says, in one part of his story, “The dead are celebrated. The dead are loved. They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.”

Part of the organizational genius of the novel is that when readers get to the point when the deathless man’s story intersects with the story of the tiger’s wife, and then with the grandfather’s own story, we know the larger story–including the end–and so can’t wish for a happy ending. It is bleak, and hardly softened by the descriptions of such things as the glorious last meal that the deathless man tells the grandfather is “important—so important—to indulge in these pleasurable things.” I do believe what the deathless man says about the end of a life: “if your life ends in suddenness you will be glad it did, and if it does not you will wish it had.” At the end of all stories, the grandfather’s end is deliberately sudden, and the end of Natalia’s story is that she fully appreciates her place in the story of her country, her family, and her own ambitions.

I didn’t like this novel, but I’m glad I read it. Have you ever felt that way about knowing a story?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2012 2:50 pm

    Oh, definitely. I felt that way about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood when I read it for English class in 10th grade. I thought it was an amazing piece of writing, but I never wanted to read it again. It still lives on my shelves as a reminder of my not wanting to read it again EVER.

    • June 14, 2012 8:13 am

      I’ve never read that one. We got it for Eleanor, when she had to read a book like that for school, but the used copy didn’t come soon enough, so she ended up reading The Alienist by Caleb Carr instead.

      • June 14, 2012 11:00 am

        He does an excellent job of getting you inside the heads of people you never, ever want to know. It’s disturbing not just because the story is gruesome, but because of how easy it is for you to slip into it.

        • June 14, 2012 4:06 pm

          Harriet is right — you kind of don’t know what to think, at the end. You feel sort of guilty for having read it — similarly Mailer’s Executioner’s Song about Gary Gilmore. I hated the Alienist, though, and was not glad I had read it. It was the reason my book club made the rule that we would read no book where anything bad happens to a child.

  2. freshhell permalink
    June 13, 2012 3:03 pm

    Yes. Most recently the DeZoet book. Glad I read it but I probably wouldn’t read it again.

    • June 14, 2012 8:15 am

      I can see that–with sad stories, there’s often no need to go through all that again.

  3. June 13, 2012 3:37 pm

    I felt that way about Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser, which I hated all the way through and then was glad I had read. My feelings about this book were not that strong — I liked it okay, I didn’t hate it, it gave me a better picture about what the Balkans are probably like, and how you could have a war between people who are essentially the same even if they think they are different. I was glad I had read it, too. Hmm.

    • June 14, 2012 8:16 am

      Sister Carrie is another unhappy story. I wonder if there’s a theme here, at least for some of us.

  4. June 14, 2012 3:32 pm

    This one has been on my TBR list for awhile, but I haven’t felt the need to pick it up yet. I’ve definitely had that reaction to books before though, especially with classics. I may not like the book, but I’m glad I read it so that I can understand the cultural references.

    • June 15, 2012 8:11 am

      It’s not even that I didn’t like it–I think under different circumstances, I’d have liked it better. I didn’t mind being in the minds of the characters at all. I think it was mostly the vague unease of the shifting war in the fiction and the shifting exam rooms in real life.

  5. June 17, 2012 8:25 am

    You know that I tend to like dark stories (just as I like dark music), but I don’t care for books or movies that rub the reader’s/viewer’s nose in the actual evil. That’s also why I almost always prefer the book over the movie. If the darkness gets too dark (or too scary), it’s easier for me to distance myself from the words.

    I tend to walk out of movies that bother me that way, and to put down books I don’t like. I am not sure I’ve ever disliked a book all the way through and then be glad I read it anyway.

  6. June 17, 2012 8:52 am

    The uneasy thing about this book is that there’s no actual evil. The tiger certainly isn’t evil. The people are doing their best. They’re all just caught in a difficult situation.

  7. June 23, 2012 9:21 pm

    I’ve definitely felt that way about books. I’ve been curious about this one but can never quite get a fix on if it “my” type of book. I’m still not sure.

    • June 24, 2012 8:26 am

      I think even after you read this novel you can’t get a fix on it, which is actually one of the loveliest things about it.

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