Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Hello blog readers! Sorry I haven’t posted for a while. I actually went a few weeks without reading a book, which is odd for me. But I’m back!

Today’s question is, when a book has been critically acclaimed from coast to coast, need I add my voice to the clamor? When even Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, that famed eviscerator of authors, has sung a book’s praises, what more is there for me to say here? That I disagree? I tried that recently with West of Here, when for a long time I was the only one standing on my lonely little platform here at Blogspot saying “wait a minute, didn’t anyone notice…?” What’s that advertising slogan that used to say “it’s lonely at the top?” Well, it’s lonely at the bottom too, out here by myself in cyberspace.

The book to which I am referring that has critics goggling is The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, who is twenty-five years old (damn her!) and the youngest writer chosen for last year’s New Yorker “20 under 40” group of fiction writers ( The story is set in the war-torn Balkans, weaving folklore and myth into a central contemporary tale of a young doctor searching for the mysterious reason for her grandfather’s death. (And yes, tigers are very popular these days, but I am talking about the tiger’s wife here, not the tiger mom!)

This week I discussed this book with my “Hot Off the Press” book discussion class. Overall, we’re not actually that far off what the critics are saying. We really do think the author is phenomenally talented, and many of us admired the writer’s writing style and storytelling abilities. But prominent raves notwithstanding, we did have some problems to point out in this book. The author weaves back and forth a lot in time, and some of us, myself included, found this confusing at points. And I usually enjoy this technique. The complicated plot of The Time Traveler’s Wife thrilled me and I loved putting the pieces in chronological order. I especially enjoyed putting pieces together in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad, which is a terrific book. But in The Tiger’s Wife I often found the switches in time disorienting.

I think the author has a wonderful ability to create quick and colorful character sketches in the folklore/historical sections of the book, as when she gave us the stories of Luka the butcher, Darisa the bear, and the Apothecary. Given this ability, I wondered why her central character, Natalia, the doctor who searches for the missing pieces of her grandfather’s story while she tends to war orphans, is so flat. Natalia is admirable as a character and her observations are insightful, but as for personality and emotion, my readers and I found her lacking. And while we do get some sense of Natalia’s grandmother, Natalia’s mother, although she is referred to numerous times, is not developed at all as a character.

One brilliant aspect of this book is how it is a war story that never mentions war. By giving us war’s shadow, the life that happens or has been obliterated in the unseen spaces war leaves behind, we are left with a clear sense of the toll war has taken on this part of the world.

I expect more beautiful work from this author in the future, and expect her to grow in skill. In this instance, however, while she has turned out a significant work of fiction, I wish she had gone back to the drawing board one more time. I believe I read that she said she worked on the novel for three years, and in the life of a twenty-five year-old, that’s a lot of years, but a bit more reworking might have addressed the book’s flaws. David Wroblewski worked on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for fifteen years. The difference in literary polish and command shows.

And so, to get back to my initial question, which was whether the [literary] world needs yet another critic? Well, hopefully I’ve added some thoughtful and even useful comments to the mix. If I can say something interesting or unique, raise a good point, even make you smile, sure, why not?