“The Tiger’s Wife” by Tea Obreht, The Zoo gets Bombed

“The Tiger’s Wife” by Tea Obreht  (2011) – 338 pages

 “The Tiger’s Wife” takes place in towns where when you walk up to the doors of the town medical clinic, a bunch of chickens scatter.  These backwater towns in the novel are located in the Balkans of southeastern Europe.

 Even backwater towns need doctors, and the two young women Natalia and Zora are two dedicated doctors.  Zora is a wisecracking modern young woman who advises the monks overseeing a makeshift orphanage to give the older girls living there birth control pills.  Natalia became a doctor, because her grandfather who brought her up and whom she loves and admires was a doctor.   “The Tiger’s Wife” begins with a moving scene of the grandfather taking the five-year old Natalia to the zoo to see the animals, especially the tiger.

 This grandfather of Natalia’s is one of the main characters in “The Tiger’s Wife” both in modern times as an elderly doctor and in separate stories when he was a little boy or young man.  Among this doctor’s most precious possessions is a copy of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” which he carries with him at all times.  As the novel’s title indicates, a tiger plays a major role, and there are many references to Shere Khan from “The Jungle Book”.  Animals of all sorts play a big role in this novel.      

 I can guarantee you that if on January 1, 2011, anyone in the publishing industry had been asked if a first novel about the Balkan wars and Balkan folk tales would be one of the best reviewed and prize-winning novels of the year, they would have said ‘No way, you’re out of your mind’.  But truth is stranger than fiction, although “The Tiger’s Wife’ is a quite unusual novel.

 Among the many hardships of wartime was a shortage of pig fetuses for these aspiring young woman doctors to examine while they were still training in school.  There is also a shortage of human skulls.

    “You’d think that, after the war, they would have had enough real skulls to go around,” the narrator, a young doctor named Natalia Stefanovic, tells us about the rigors of her medical training; “but they were bullet-riddled skulls, or skulls that needed to be buried so they could wait underground to be dug up, washed, buried again by their loved ones.”

 This novel is a combination of the modern realistic story with the two young woman doctors and the mythic tales that go back in time as far as the grandfather’s childhood.   These set pieces even have their own titles such as ‘The Deathless Man’, ’The Tiger’s Wife’, and ‘Darisa the Bear’.  In the stories both people and animals can have magical qualities.  The stories have the wide-eyed wonder of little children’s stories.  Both in the modern story and the folk tales, a zoo gets bombed during a war. War and the magic of animals are two of the novel’s constant themes.

 There is no question that “The Tiger’s Wife” is a well written novel.  I myself preferred the modern story with the young irreverent doctor Zora being my favorite character of the novel.  The old mythical folk stories are set pieces that can stand alone, and  I’m sure that Tea Obreht is making some point of how the past determines the future,  Somehow I did not find the set piece folk tales as involving as the modern story.  The point of these folktales did not seem to relate to the modern story.  The characters in the modern realistic story including Natalia, Zora, and the grandfather are strong and vivid enough to carry the novel.  The folk stories were somewhat interesting but seemed more like children’s stories that were entirely separate from the modern story.  The story of ‘The Deathless Man’ became somewhat humorous and tiresome because he wouldn’t go away or die.

11 responses to this post.

  1. I am relieved to read that I am not alone in my impressions of this book … I confess that I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it (woe is me!) and I tossed in the proverbial towel about 20 pages from the book’s end.


    • Hi Justine,
      To quit a book that near the end… I remember quitting books after I’ve reached the halfway point. Usually, and it happens quite frequently, I’ll quit a book after 40-50 pages realizing I’m not going to get into it, and it can happen on a book that everyone else loves.


      • I was irritated by the fact that a new character was introduced so close to the end and I realised, quite suddenly actually, that didn’t care at all what happened to these characters and how the book resolved. Tragic, I know!


  2. Interesting – I was far more drawn to the tales than I was to the modern story, which felt false and somewhat less… I don’t know, relevant, perhaps? I didn’t connect to Natalia as a character and I felt that her whole thread was far less tangible than the more fantasy-esque folk tales. All a matter of taste, obviously, but I find it curious that you grew tired of the Deathless Man – I found the quiet subtlety of his story and repetitive nature to contain some of the strongest writing in the book.


    • Hi Biblibio,
      Yes, the moving scene in the elegant restaurant with the doctor and the Deathless Man near the end of the novel… I suppose the point of the Deathless Man stories, if there is a point, is that the Deathless Man represents the Balkan people who no matter how many times they get beat up and almost destroyed in all these wars, they keep coming back, are deathless. Probably it is a good thing that the point of the entire novel is not too clear. It’s like the novel doesn’t blame specific bad leaders for these wars, but that war besets these places like a natural uncontrolable force. I still think it is bad leaders.


  3. Posted by Amritorupa Kanjilal on March 10, 2012 at 2:52 PM

    Hi Tony,
    Very interesting review, and I totally loved your blog! following you now!

    I reviewed The Tiger’s Wife for my book blog too, would you care to come and see, and post a comment?
    Also, if you like the blog, please follow!
    Thank you.


  4. Posted by Cassie on March 3, 2013 at 11:57 PM

    I loved that the folktales could stand alone, but I loved the way they connected to the whole piece of it. I thought it was a beautiful debut. Loved reading your review and insight. : )


    • Hi Cassie,
      It seems like decades have passed since “The Tiger’s Wife”, but I see my review was hardly more than a year ago. Looking back, the novel has stood up quite well in my memory. While some novels I read leave no trace, I still remember “The Tiger’s Wife well.
      I’m happy you enjoyed the blog.


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