Serbian-born 24-year-old Téa Obreht has received numerous awards for her writing, and The Tiger’s Wife (Random House, 2011) has made her a prominent and serious author despite her young age. I read this book last summer, while also reading Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, and the differences in writing style and plot between the two was palpable. The Tiger’s Wife is by far an exceptional work of art as Obreht interweaves Balkan history and folklore into the most riveting tale told.
What has inspired this post is a review recently published by Molly Fischer in the New York Observer. In her review, Fischer reduces Obreht’s tale to a book written for young adults, and claims that her “chaste, solemn, schoolgirl prose is not for grown-up people.” Fischer ridicules the fact that Obreht’s novel is loosely based on folklore and Rudyard Kipling’s children’s tale, and the fact that there is no sex present in the book makes this story a tale for children. It’s a ridiculous assumption, because Obreht’s book is masterfully put-together, her characters complex and unique, her writing impeccable and poetic.
Fischer condescends that Obreht’s protagonist, Natalia Stefanivic, is boring compared to the mythical characters that she creates like the mute butcher’s wife, the bear hunter, the deathless man, and so on. But this is not true. Natalia’s character is as real in this book as the vibrant characters she recalls from her grandfather’s stories of his childhood.
Natalia Stefanovic does not go around having an exorbitant amount of sex that would gratify Fischer’s penchant for the mundane often found in chick lit, but she is strong, intelligent, and as able to intertwine the harsh realities of her experiences as a doctor with the tales her beloved and recently deceased grandfather told her within her consciousness. This ability to respect both the real and the mythical aspects of her Balkan culture—her present with her grandfather’s past—shows profound depth and sensitivity.
This is not a salacious sex novel; it is a story of family, history, and culture. It is the conflict often endured by doctors who venture to war-ravaged villages to help those who refuse their cures because they believe in curses, ghosts, and deathless men. It is the story of a young woman doctor who crosses the borders on a mission to inoculate orphans—children who lost their own family and history because of the war. While on her mission, Natalia learns that her beloved grandfather—the one who told her the tales that prevail with poetic vibrancy throughout the text—has died only a few miles away from where she is. A doctor himself, and aware of his illness and inevitable demise, he had followed her on her mission but had died on his way to reach her.
It becomes Natalia’s objective to retrieve his body and his belongings. Facing his death with great strength of character, it is his stories—his childhood tales of people he had met and known—that come to life in her mind and become part of her own memories of him. It is through these stories—of mute girls, abusive butchers, death personified, intelligent, and humble, tigers and elephants that escape captivity and roam cities and villages with power and grace—that she pays homage to the man who had raised her with love and respect.
This is a beautiful novel, full of exemplary writing and story-telling, and sex has nothing to do with it. It’s an intimate portrayal of family, loss, and love that transcends time and cultural boundaries. It is touching, gripping, and beautifully written.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.