“What Tigers and Tales Can Teach”
A review of
The Tiger’s Wife:
By Téa Obreht.
Review by Alex Joyner.
On bright moonlit nights I sometimes catch myself looking out the window for a headless dog running through the fields. My father is responsible for this behavior. Traveling through the tidewater plains of Virginia to visit my grandparents, he would tell me stories about his life growing up in these loamy lands. Tales of Saturday matinees shown in tents during the Depression, of his father slowly dying from tuberculosis, and of a mysterious, headless dog who ran through peanut fields under a full moon to warn of an impending death.
To this day the county where he grew up remains the most fully-realized place I have ever been. It has history, texture, memory, and wonder all woven together in equal measure. These family stories delivered this land to me. They also gave birth to my sense of self and my place in the world.
Téa Obreht had a grandfather who did the same for her. The 25-year-old author of a stunner of a first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia just as that country was preparing to disintegrate into civil war. Subsequently she lived in Cyprus, Egypt, and the United States, but her relationship with her Slovenian grandfather and her sense of her first home grounds this book.
In an early scene, the narrator of the novel, Natalia Stefanovic, is recalling trips with her grandfather to the zoo in a Belgrade-like city in the Balkans. “His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, ‘I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.’ Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself — and will for years and years”.
Though Natalia grows up to be a physician like her grandfather and employs science to improve the lives of those around her, she seeks true meaning by exploring stories. When her grandfather dies while she is on a trip to provide vaccines to a wartorn coastal town, she begins to revisit two key stories. “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”. Slowly, as the narrator shares episodes from these stories, we are drawn deeply into a culture that is equally Balkan and universal. Obreht trades on archetypes that are both ancient and yet fresh in the retelling.
While these stories are playing out, we are also watching Natalia and her colleague at work in a troubled landscape where a clan of sickly people is digging in a vineyard for a body. The doctors chafe at the obdurate clan leader, Dure, who won’t allow the children to receive medical care. Dure, however, is convinced that there is a curse on them because of the body they are seeking, the body of a cousin buried hastily during the war without proper rites. The curse is the cause of the illness.
When the body is found Natalia finds some sympathy for Dure. “The illness itself, how his thoughts must have turned straight to the body when his wife and children began falling ill, one by one; how he must have circled around his own guilt, hinted at it while he searched for cures from the village crone, until the old woman finally caught on and told him what he wanted to hear, pointed to his recklessness and irresponsibility with the body, absolved him by confirming that the burden was his” .
Obreht obviously shares this deep insight into how human beings work, which is perhaps is the most remarkable thing about this work of her relative youth. She knows that we all live at the intersections of faith, superstition, and science. Sometimes a belief deeper than reason, a knowing carried by story, prevails or at least is a more adequate witness, even for the clinically-trained doctor or the academically-trained modern.
Obreht takes us to a place more real than the disenchanted world will let us go. It is a place where the deep wisdom of beasts like tigers and bears still matters. It is a place where purpose cannot be conveyed in rational thought. It is a place where people still look out windows on moonlit nights and expect to see harbingers of death and life.
The Tiger’s Wife has won Obreht the Orange Prize for Fiction, an international accolade for writing by women. She is its youngest recipient. No doubt many more awards will be on the way. This is a work of heart and soul and deserves the attention of a bloodied world.
Alex Joyner is pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and is the author, most recently, of Hard Times Come Again No More: Suffering and Hope [Abingdon Press, 2010].