“Water, please.”

The Tiger's Wife, Téa Obreht

I finished The Tiger’s Wife in about two weeks—a speedy read for me. I’ve noticed over the years that the quicker a read, the weaker my retention: page turners are by definition engrossing, tapping into some primordial sweet spot in my limbic system and cheating me out of much needed sleep. But ask me about one of these page turners a few weeks or months later, and I’ll scratch my head and say something to the effect of, “Ohhhhh yeeeeeeah, I did read that, didn’t I.” Usually this is true of conventional popular fiction. (Not to denigrate popular fiction; superficiality is by no means its primary identifying characteristic, nor exclusive to the form. Plenty of touted works that aspire to literature are just as forgettable.) And sometimes—less often—I’ll find a work identified as “literary fiction” to be utterly unputdownable. These are the rare treats that demonstrate an artistry of prose as well as a ripping good yarn. My favorite read last year was probably David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which was just such a crossover. So too is Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife.

Before I get into the meat of my little review, I have a bone to pick with the marketing team at Random House, and with reviewers in general. On the back cover of the hardcover first edition of The Tiger’s Wife, there appear two blurbs—one from T. C. Boyle, another from Ann Patchett. You might call these two writers, “towering.” Lord knows, others have. And such reductive clichés of book reviewing are to be expected, even from established reviewers such as the towering So-and-So. But why, please-lord-God-of-all-that-is-beautiful-and-original-on-this-sacred-planet WHY, must you both refer to the author—on the cover of her debut novel, no less!—with the backhanded compliment “talented”?

A typewriting monkey is talented. A six-year-old doing rope tricks is talented. A barista who makes faithful reproductions of Munch’s “The Scream” in my cappuccino foam is talented. But a twenty-five-year-old Serbian-American author, for whom English is a presumable second language and who got a Masters degree from got-dam Cornell, whose stories have been published in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and whose novel in question has been chosen by a gajillion book clubs and bookstores and bestsellers lists as one of the best books of 2011 is not a talented writer. She is a got-dam genius.

She’s about five years younger than most other first-time novelists. Sure, I’m envious: I probably won’t get around to publishing my first novel for another few years at least, putting me well into my mid- to late-thirties. But what the fuck: she’s not twelve, or six. She’s a grown woman and an artist and you marketers need to get the hell over yourselves and your categories. If Obreht’s “talent” is the book’s major selling point, then it’s no wonder you can’t sell books to save your lives. Sheeeeeeeeeit.

Okay, I’m done.

As for The Tiger’s Wife: there is one leitmotif that sticks with me from this book—beyond the obvious tiger, of course (who is both real and a metaphorical here)—and that is the character of Gavran Gailé, the Deathless Man. I keep thinking of this book in terms of how it might be made into a really great indie film. I can picture the trailer now: a darkened crypt beneath a church in a war-ravaged town on the Adriatic. The sounds of scurrying up above. Down below, the moans of the dying and the candlelit face of a young doctor, sweating and looking nervously around, trying to pinpoint a voice. There it is again, polite, almost a whisper: “Water, please, doctor.” Launch into a fierce montage of tigers leaping at villagers in the woods. A menacing butcher in blood-soaked apron lumbering straight for the camera. A fearful little boy hiding in a cabinet in a meat shed as the tiger prowls just outside. An older gentleman telling his granddaughter to the zoo, “have I ever told you about the Deathless Man?” A modern young doctor’s eyes going wide as she unzips a blue backpack. Then all goes silent and we hear it the voice again in the dark, urgent, polite, timeless, mystical: “Pardon me—water, please.”

What Obreht has done is weave the folktales and superstitions of her homeland with a modern story of a young professional on a quest for answers about her grandfather’s death to create a story of drama, delight, and revelation.

Sure, there are some clunky bits. It’s a first novel. But they are few. The narrator’s entire storyline—a young doctor trying to find her voice and identity in post-war Serbia (or Croatia; it’s never made clear, but coastal towns figure heavily), all the while trying to piece together the mystery of her beloved grandfather’s disappearance and death, trying to administer vaccines to the children of a poor village, and witnessing a gypsy family’s exhausting exhumation of their clansman—seems a bit ragged at the edges, like the background that was painted in after the foreground pieces. Mostly the narrator’s thread serves as the glue holding together the plot and several other elements of Serbo-Croat folklore that the author wanted to include. And seriously, I do thank her for including them: I’m a junky for folklore, urban legend, ostension, and superstition. If these can be embedded in a narrative, linear or otherwise, that makes sense and conveys deeper currents of meaning, I’m all for it. If some of those threads start to fray or stand awkwardly apart from the rest—that is, if the novel lacks integrity of plot—I’m pretty forgiving, so long as my needs are met at a visceral level.

And by visceral I don’t even necessarily mean emotional. The Tiger’s Wife is about two relationships—between grandfather and granddaughter, and between the grandfather and the eponymous tiger’s wife (who is … SPOILER ALERT … the young, deaf-mute wife of the cruel and deeply closeted butcher; for an explanation of how she becomes the “wife” of a tiger you’ll need to read the book)—and those relationships are adequately rendered, if somewhat unfulfilling. More captivating is the relationship of the author—via the narrator—to the people and their tales.

Ultimately, this is a book about superstition and modernity, and a new generation that is finding value in both formal education and the traditional ways. In that vein, The Tiger’s Wife fits alongside other works of contemporary art and media that interprets old customs anew: see the renewed popularity of folk music (Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling, Devendra Banhart, Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes, the solo albums of Amanda Palmer or Eddie Vedder, and on and on…), or of surrealism in literature (Karen Russell, anyone?). There seems to be a common thread among the Millenials of—okay, this is going to sound like fortune cookie wisdom, but bear with me—looking forward by looking back. Yeah yeah, this is trite and a recurring theme for every generation. But whereas Generation X (of which I’m a straggling latecomer, born in ’78) distrusted their parents’ ways and responded to commercialism and a glut of information by retreating in some corners to infantilism (see: any of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics) or trivia (see: McSweeney’s Internet Tendency), Millenials like Obreht appear to be developing an epistemology that simultaneously embraces old and new. Grunge was the teeth-baring response of my generation to the world. Folk is the good-natured hug of this new generation.

All in all, I recommend The Tiger’s Wife to readers who enjoy clean prose in the service of an ho-hum plot and an amazing story. Not all ends are tied up by the end, and that may frustrate some (Who the hell is Gailé’s uncle, for example?), and the neat prose style might not be lyrical enough for others (and it’s punctuated by a few modern F-bombs that almost seem forced). But I’ll be damned if this isn’t a deeply gratifying read overall. The history, the mystery, and The Deathless Man, that good-natured fool, is rajika for the soul—an ancient missing liqueur we’ve been craving for so long.

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