The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

I will be brief, because this novel has received widely laudatory coverage and I do not have much to say about it. Magical realism tends to have too much magic and too little realism for my taste. The mix here, though, was not bad. I also did not find, as others have, that the novel felt like two short stories (“The Deathless Man” and “The Tiger’s Wife”) duct-taped together to form a novel. Perhaps the most I can say is that I was not particularly moved.

Obreht has some beautiful imagery and intriguing ideas on offer. For the imagery, try this:

[H]e was the kind of boy who caught bumblebees in jars and then harnessed them carefully with films from cassette tapes so that it was not uncommon to see him walking down the main road with dozens of them rising around him like tiny, insane balloons while the film flashed wildly in the sun.

I also enjoyed the “sour little shudders” of a boy’s heart and the need, in cold and snow, “to wipe the sting out of his eyes”. Obreht paints exquisite details into her novel.

As for ideas, one of her most important characters is “the deathless man” who has been cursed with the inability to die. This idea has been often used before, though Simone de Beauvoir explored it with the most philosophical rigor in All Men Are Mortal. De Beauvoir uses Raimon Fosca, an immortal character, to examine what mortality means for our ethical systems and how it shapes human experience. In her rendering, immortality presents problems of its own, demonstrating that frustrations with limited time are, in some ways, based on false assumptions. The darkness and the light at the heart of existentialism is further explored through Fosca’s inability to create any lasting progress or improvements in the world. Whether man dies or not, meaning is ephemeral.

Obreht takes a light approach in bending the venerable myth of a man cursed with immortality to her purposes. Partly, this is by giving the deathles man a supporting, rather than leading, role. Natalia, Obreht’s narrator, learns from her grandfather’s interactions with the deathless man the lesson of hope in death. The deathless man proves that death need not be feared because there is something afterwards, something even to be longed for by one who knows best what to expect. Death, in other words, is not really death.

The primary problem with death, in Obreht’s telling, is that people are always worried they missed something that would have prolonged their life.

”But the greatest fear is that of uncertainty,” Gavran Gaile is saying. “They are uncertain about meeting my uncle, of course. But they are uncertain, above all, of their own inaction: have they done enough, discovered their illness soon enough, consulted the worthiest physicians, consumed the best medicines, uttered the correct prayers?”

I am not sure this could be written or believed by anyone over the age of forty. By that age, denial of mortality is generally no longer really possible. The greatest fears tend, then, to be those with which de Beauvoir and her character Fosca engage. The question is not so much “have I done enough to avoid death”, but “have I done enough with my life?” The brilliance of All Men Are Mortal is that Fosca’s life demonstrates that the thing we tend to mean when we ask that question is not really all that important. There is no monument a person can erect to herself that will insulate her from annihilation. All accomplishment is, in the longest of runs, illusory. Ozymandias may have been the king of all kings, but boasts of eternal greatness are always mocked by time. Impermanent beings must satisfy themselves with evanescent significance.

Obreht, meanwhile, demonstrates admirable skill, but never delivers the sort of depth her premise suggests. The deathless man serves as a kindly guide across the Styx. One needn’t fear death, because a friendly man awaits. He will start you on the path to find your previously departed loved ones. You will meet them again. Death is not death, but a mere transition. Obreht’s is too facile a solution to the unpleasantness of finitude.

The Tiger’s Wife is a promise to us that Obreht is an author worth reading now for the greatness she will give us in the future. This book provides pleasant diversion, but no real weight.

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14 Responses to The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

  1. buriedinprint says:

    I liked this well enough, but was rather surprised that it won the Orange Prize last year; it’s the kind of book that I’m ready to fall in love with, but I wasn’t smitten.

  2. If I were assured of some reunion with my much-missed dead I wouldn’t worry about death, because it wouldn’t be death. It would be a different form of life.

    I’m not sure a book can grapple with death as a theme, and include a pleasant afterlife, and yet be meaningful. The Lovely Bones (which I admit I’ve not read) seemed to have a similar issue. If the girl went to such a lovely heaven, was her death really such a terrible event? In real life it is because we have no such authorial assurance. Even those with faith have only that, faith. In literature we can be given proof, and proof undermines exactly that which we fear.

    What attracted you to this one? It sounds fine, but not up there with a lot of the other books you read?

    • Kerry says:

      I absolutely agree, Max. Death is rendered not death which doesn’t work so well as a serious treatment of the issue.

      The Tournament of Books got me to read this. I wouldn’t have otherwise. I am not sorry I did. Obreht is quite adept with language and a good storyteller. It is not, however, my typical cup of tea. If it were not for Open City, I would resolve not to read ToB contenders again. Of course, I could have found that one via several other prize lists….and it is fun to have a rooting interest based in actually having read some of the books. I cannot decide whether it is entirely worth the diversion of time from other books I find more engaging and challenging.

  3. Kerry: Sorry I missed this post when it went up. I haven’t read this book and, without in any way putting it down, your review perfectly summarizes why I do not intend to. I have no problem with those who think it is great — I’d say that I might come back to it if Obreht’s next two live up to the promise of this one.

    Until then, not for me.

    • Kerry says:

      Kevin,

      I think yours is a good plan, particularly given your reading preferences. I would have done the same but for the Tournament of Books. I am not sorry to have read it, but neither can I recommend it as something you need to read. If Obreht continues to develop, you may want to revisit (or not).

      Thanks, as always, for your comments.

  4. Sarah says:

    ‘This book provides pleasant diversion, but no real weight.’ I think that sums it up beautifully, Kerry. I also was not sorry to have read this book but was slightly disconcerted to have loved it less than others did.

  5. … and on that note I shall continue with my plan of not reading this book. I’m sure I wouldn’t hate it from what you say, and perhaps if she goes on to other things I’ll wish that I’d read her first but I’ll just have to live with that.

    BTW When did you change your banner? Love it. She has such a great face.

    • Kerry says:

      On The Tiger’s Wife, I think you are right to wait. I think you would enjoy it well enough, but not as much as something else. I do not find it essential, so waiting to see how the talented Ms. Obreht develops seems a wise way to go.

      Regarding the banner, thanks. I changed it maybe a month ago. What is actually much more interesting was the idea a very nice hotel in Chicago had (the Wit), specifically, in a sitting area with tall bookshelves along one wall, the books were covered with dust covers that, collectively, formed portraits of various great artists. I took the picture of their picture years ago meaning to use it on the blog, but only recently put it up. (Did I mention that the hotel is phenomenal?)

  6. I’m sure I’ve been here since then. I must have been focused on your wonderful writing and missed it! I’ll keep that hotel in mind as I’d like to visit Chicago again one day.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you, Whispering, though I am sure that is too kind by at least half.

      The hotel is wonderful and excellently located in the center of the action downtown. It was a splurge vacation (my sig other grew up in the Chicago suburbs and wanted to do Chicago in style at least once) and we had a great time. It is a great city, though I’ve only been a few times.

      • Not at all .. Too kind by half I mean.

        I’ve only been to Chicago once but liked it a lot. Great city with such a wide range of attractions. And such history.

  7. Cassie says:

    I really loved this book so now I’m going to read the books you mention with other immortal characters because I haven’t. I definitely didn’t think these were short stories stitched together, it all seemed to make perfect sense to me. Of course, I agree with you about her imagery. You mentioned a few that I didn’t even notice while reading and now have to go back and find, so thank you.

    • Kerry says:

      Cassie,

      Thank you for your comment. I remember the book and its imagery fondly. More so than others from the same time. Which, upon reading my review, means I like it better in retrospect than I did at the time, I guess. I had forgotten about some of the parts that annoyed me, but have remembered those that impressed. So, I will be on the watch for Obreht’s next one. She has talent to burn and an excellent imagination. (And I agree that the book seemed like a novel rather than short stories.) I am thrilled it found an ideal reader in you, too, because it is definitely a good enough book that there are many who will really connect with it.

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