This review will not give away any spoilers about the tiger or its significance in the story but will discuss other events and elements of Obreht’s Prize-Winning debut novel.
‘Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs…‘
A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic – Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book.
Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather’s death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery.
From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realizes he may have died searching for ‘the deathless man’, a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger’s wife.
I knew I wanted to review this novel when I picked it up from the library as I had a hunch that this novel would turn out to be unlike any other I’ve read. Thus far I have only just discovered this blurb having previously only read the exert on the back of the book. The blurb just threw a curve-ball at me as I was not expecting Obreht’s novel to be a war story. I am now hoping that the tigers, that are of such importance in the novel are not purely metaphors for the Nazis.
However I found this book to be quirky, as I had previously imagined, from the first page and whimsical from the first line “In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.” (1) On first impression her grandfather is instantly likeable, a doctor, dedicated to his granddaughter, who reads from his ever-present favourite book The Jungle Book. It is not long before the first reference to ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ it appears on the second page in fact “I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine-myself and will, for years and years.”(2) It is then that I find myself thinking of C.S. Lewis and his heartbreaking, poignant The Chronicles of Narnia dedication to his granddaughter.
At the end of Chapter it becomes clear that the relationship between Natalia and her grandfather is far more complex than it initially seems when he allows her to witness a traumatic event, aged four.
Natalia is full of ambition which was pleasing to read. In her childhood she wants nothing more than to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and become a Doctor and she achieves this goal. It is also interesting, in a similar way to Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde to read the fantastical elements of this novel when the two main characters, our narrator and her grandfather, both doctors, are rational and logical.
There is an incredibly vivid scene where Natalia and her grandfather come across an elephant in the dead of night and he explains to her that there are certain moments in life you should cherish and keep for yourself, this being one of them. This leads Natalia to ask her grandfather if he has any such stories he can share with her. His response provides a perfect example of the pairing between the rational and the fantastical in Obreht’s novel. Natalia’s grandfather tells her of a job he took in ’54; to diagnose the cause of death of a recently deceased man. When he arrives he then finds the man, who was recently shot in the head, alive in his coffin. The man is named Gavran Gailé who explains he ‘died’ after telling another man he was going to die from TB, the man grows angry upon hearing of his impending death and kills Gavran. Gailé ‘post-death’ eloquently describes people who are told they are going to die:
“They behave strangely..They are suddenly filled with life. Suddenly they want to fight for things, ask questions. They want to throw hot water in your face, or beat you senseless with an umbrella, or hit you in the head with a rock. Suddenly they remember things thy have to do, people they have forgotten. All that refusal, all that resistance. Such a luxury.” (69)
This novel came to me during a difficult part of my life, as Natalia remembered and grieved the loss of her grandfather, I was losing mine. Perhaps this was the reason I found myself enjoying the novel (although finding it hard to read) and being grateful for its fantastical elements. Again I find myself thinking of the great C.S Lewis; “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again.” I have learned that fairytales can be a great comfort.