Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On Téa Obreht's Debut Novel "The Tiger's Wife"

I’d heard the hype about Tea Obreht’s debut novel “The Tiger’s Wife” for far too long. The New York Times put it on their list of top 10 books of 2011 and the opening flap of the book contains glowing quotes of praise from practically every newspaper that still exists. Also, there’s the fact that Obreht is even younger than I am and she’s already got Jennifer Egan interviewing her. Is the book really that good?

The answer is: yes. The Tiger’s Wife is a complex web of magic and myth, part war story, part love story and part Balkan folklore. Obreht plays with the genre of magical realism to create a world in which the magic is quite realistic and the realism is quite magical. There are gravediggers and deathless men and tigers and bears... Oh, my!

At its core, The Tiger’s Wife is about the power of myth and the insatiable human desire to take the chaos of life and shape it into a meaningful story. Obreht’s tale is intricately designed and her prose combines poetic description with the roughness of old world folklore.

Here’s Obreht riffing on the effect war has on young minds: “We were seventeen, furious at everything because we didn’t know what else to do with the fact that the war was over. Years of fighting, and, before that, a lifetime on the cusp of it. Conflict we didn’t necessarily understand – conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinions on, seized as the reason for why we couldn’t go anywhere, do anything, be anyone – had been at the center of everything. It had forced us to make choices based on circumstances that were now no longer a part of our daily lives, and we kept it close, a heavy birthright for which we were only too eager to pay.”

Here she goes again on the absurdity of national boundaries in the Balkans: “The border had been a joke, an occasional formality, and you used to drive or fly or walk across as you pleased, by woodland, by water, by open plain.”

The plot is too rich and the characters too many to analyze here. I won’t try because I would fail miserably. Suffice it to say that Obreht is a writer to be reckoned with. Her debut deserves the attention it is getting, and I anxiously await her second attempt.

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