Please excuse me while I gush. OMG, ‘The Tiger’s Wife’! The story in this novel is told so naturally and simply, that there are no barriers between the reader and the character’s humanity. At the same time its structure is intricate and there’s plenty of meandering, interconnected content to satisfy anyone looking for a read to wallow in and later, lovingly dissect. Although it purely presents an overarching theme, more than it analyses that theme, this novel is so lovely and just good, good stuff that I can’t wait to see what Tea Obreht is going to do next. Let me try to explain why this novel got me so excited.
This is another novel like Sarah Waters, ‘The Night Watch’ and Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ that prompts me to rave about its exciting use of structure. ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ makes uses of a story within a story structure. The first storyline we’re introduced to is the story of Natalia a young doctor, who is crossing a border in the Balkans to deliver medical help to an orphanage (and I should probably note here that my knowledge of the geography of this area and the history of the conflicts the book talks about is miniscule, so expect vagueness). On the way to the border crossing with her best friend and colleague Zora, Natalia learns that her grandfather has died, not at home as she expected but in a small town that Natalia has never heard of before. She decides not to tell Zora about her grandfather’s death and continues on to the orphanage. Natalia’s story is established as a present storyline. While this story is interesting and contains a separate importance of its own, also functions as a framing device which allows Natalia to tell stories from the past; both the past story of her relationship with her grandfather and the two stories that shaped her grandfather’s life:
‘Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told me, is of how he became a child again.’
Here Natalia explains that she learnt about the two stories in different ways. She says that the first story she learned on her own, but the second (a story about a man who could not die) was told to her by her grandfather and the novel carefully presents that story with its own distinct, developed framing device, which makes both the substance of that story and the way the story is told feel important to the reader. This second framing device is presumably included to make the reality of her grandfather and their relationship more present and believable to the reader, so that they will empathise with both characters more and to facilitate a more natural telling of her grandfather’s story.
So, the reader is asked to depart from directly relating to present Natalia at various points in the novel, as she becomes a narrator of the past recounting various parts of the relationship between her young self and her grandfather when she was growing up in the City, a place often disrupted by war. Each time the reader meets past Natalia and her grandfather, a new piece of the tale about the deathless man is revealed (there are three, longish sections, each containing a new instance where her grandfather meets a man named Gavran Gaile). Although the inclusion of Natalia’s grandfather’s in the novel serves a purpose (to allow the novel to tell two extra-ordinary fantasy like tales) her grandfather is not a puppet storyteller kept eagerly waiting around to tell the next piece of his story. Each piece of the story is first preceded by present Natalia’s reminiscences about Natalia’s young life and her relationship with her grandfather. He emerges from these tales as a character in his own right with a history and a life. He only reveals each new piece of the story about the deathless man after his interactions with Natalia prompt him to continue the tale and this story, although about the deathless man, is also deeply about Natalia’s grandfather.
Just a quick note on how the structure is building: these sections about the deathless man also add another layer of structural complexity to the novel, as they are told in the first person by her grandfather. So, now we have present Natalia who was telling us the story of her trip over the border, but then deviated to tell a new story about past Natalia and her grandfather. Then her grandfather, one of the people in that story began a story of his own in his own voice, adding layers of immediacy to a narrative from the past. The structure pulls us through wonderland door after door and then abruptly returns us to beginning of the cycle of narratives, to add new layers of understanding and detail to the reader’s experience.
The first story mentioned in that quote, the one about how her grandfather ‘became a man’ and the story about the tiger’s wife of the title, comes to Natalia after her grandfather is dead. The narrative subtly suggests that Natalia took a journey to the village where he lived as a boy, by having her describe the trip the reader must take to reach the village in almost a detached, purely descriptive way that sounds rather like an omniscient narrator:
‘Twenty minutes in, the road hairpins, and when you take this turn, wait for the blaze that strikes across the valley, where the pin forest stands dense and silent: that light is the sun glancing off the last surviving window of the monastery of Sveti Danilo, the only sign that it is still there, and it is considered a miracle, because you will see it from the same place any time of the day, as long as the sun is up.’
However, Natalia is never positioned quite as an omniscient narrator. She knows a lot of things that others don’t, as her grandfather has told her his secrets, but there are still things she doesn’t and can’t know, so this passage may seem a bit lacking in narrative logic at first. Then near the end of this description she mentions ‘a white-haired man sitting on the porch, and the moment he sees your car, he will get up and move indoors’ While this could also be a sign of an omniscient narrator, who sees this journey being taken by others throughout history, it suddenly seemed more likely to me that this time specific detail (the man can’t live forever) was the product of experience and other details also sound like events the story teller had wrestled with in the flesh:
‘The sign will not tell you that, once you have turned onto the path, you have effectively committed to spending the night; that your car probably will not make it back up in on try; that you will spend eight hours with your knees against your chin, your back against the door, your flashlight pointless and unused in the trunk, because to retrieve it you would have to get out of the car, and that will never happen.’
The story of the tiger’s wife is revisited throughout the novel. More detail is filled in and the plot moves forward. And occasionally there is a reference to how the butcher’s daughter will be able to fill in a detail or two. Again these could indicate the knowledge of an omniscient narrator device, but I personally construe it as a sign that Natalia makes the journey and talks to people about what happened so many years ago.
Right, ok then, by the end of the novel readers have read a story, within a story, within a story and a bonus story as well. It’s an ambitious undertaking. Are there snags? Well, yes. As Natalia’s stories are devices that facilitate her grandfather’s stories to come out Natalia sometimes takes on the unfortunate cast of a storyteller, or a narrator who exists entirely to disseminate other people’s experiences. Her own present day story about crossing a border and treating sick children is rather shunted aside by her strenuous efforts to understand her grandfather’s tale of the deathless man. Her quest to understand causes her to abandon her own journey at times. Eventually and inevitably her own life bears marks of conveniently tying up with her grandfather’s experiences, becoming merely a continuation of his story rather than an examination of her life.
Thankfully Obreht’s novel saves Natalia’s story from the ignoble fate of becoming a convenient co-incidence. And although Natalia’s life story and the tale of her time at the orphanage are undeniably the way that Oberht makes it more natural for her grandfather’s stories to emerge her personality is just as developed as her grandfathers is, with all the detail and obsceneness that such a comparison implies. Her stories lack the magical element of his stories, but they are no less interesting, personal and detailed. The gaps in her early life story sometimes left me wanting more detail about what she had been doing around the particular episodes that are brought into focus for the reader, how she felt about people consigned to the background of this novel and as a consequence seemed at times, to create a messier, vaguer picture of her life than the tidy, narrative of her grandfather did. On reflection though we learn about the same level of explicit detail about both characters’ history and the gaps in what we learn about Natalia and her grandfather are similar, for example we learn very little about Natalia, or her grandfather’s feelings for her grandmother and his daughter. By the end of the novel Natalia is both a device and a person, although her grandfather undeniably gets more page time as there are three narrative strands that relate to him (the stories Natalia tells about spending time with him, the story of the deathless man and the story of the tiger’s wife).
I’m a fantasy fan, so it’s not exactly surprising that I was charmed by the folk like stories of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. They’re beautifully developed, with just the right amount of magic, realism and history inter-woven to create tales you can believe in and care about. I really think any attempt to describe them is going to miss so much of the detail that it’s not really worthwhile, as these tales (especially the story of the tiger’s wife) are full of their own mini-character stories, which build a level of detail and emotion which would need to be picked apart in their own studies, so I’m going to cop out and say READ THE BOOK. I would be so interested though if anyone wanted to discuss these details of two stories in the comments, especially the relationship between the disability of the tiger’s wife and the almost romantic mysticism of her portrayal. Also, I'm kind of dying for a discussion about her character in relation to litlove’s idea that magical realism is designed to give oppressed people a voice.
One aspect of the fantastical side of this novel that I really liked was the space provided for readers and the characters in the story, to question whether they’re seeing something supernatural, or if there are innocent explanations for the events. The novel never really forces the reader to abandon their fondness for the fantastical, nor does it force that magical interpretation on to readers who might want a more real world explanation of what happened. While the story of the tiger’s wife is ultimately a cautionary one against the harm that superstition and prejudice can bring to a small village, it’s also a story where tigers really do brush by small boys without mauling them. I find the supernatural side of the story of the deathless man hard to argue with, but Obhert introduces a real explanation of another mora that brings into question the reality of spirits. What I like so much is that you are allowed to come to your own conclusions with just a little prompting from the book, without being made to feel silly, or cynical for choosing one side, or another.
And this is Obreht’s debut. How will her writing develop in the many years of writing still available to her? I can’t wait to find out.