There are many ways one could start a review of Tea Obreht’s Orange Prize winning debut, the majority of which would use a cheap joke in one way or another (she’s earned her stripes, it’s ggrreat!, I’d hate to be sitting on the Groom’s side at that wedding etc., etc.,). Puns aside, however, it is undeniable that Obreht has written a startlingly brilliant debut novel.
Published by Hachette’s Phoenix imprint, The Tiger’s Wife charts a young woman’s relationship with her Grandfather, ranging from her childhood memories of the man, to her studies at medical school and to their eventual estrangement. Woven through this narrative are the stories her Grandfather told her throughout her life, including those of an encounter with an escaped tiger in a deeply superstitious Balkan village, and those of his encounters with the supposedly ‘deathless’ man.
The tiger subplot, in which the escaped animal finds itself drawn to the kindness of a deaf-mute girl, is reminiscent of several works by Angela Carter, drawing strongly upon the themes of female sexuality and the brutality of the male psyche. However, unlike Carter’s work, Obreht eschews explicit violence and graphic sex in favour of a more meandering, dreamlike writing style, creating a world which resembles our own, but in which rumour and idle gossip quickly twist the truth into the stuff of legend. Consequently, when they do occur, the fantastical elements of her story feel far from out of place.
Such a style also enables Obreht to include background stories of several minor characters, who nevertheless play a crucial role in the novel’s plot. These short stories feed rather nicely into the plot as a whole, and there are several wonderful ‘aha!’ moments where the reader spots those links which characters are unable to see.
However such episodic writing also highlights the The Tiger’s Wife’s biggest weakness – the lack of a truly gripping overarching plot. While it’s easy to overlook the lack of character development in the story’s shorter narrative strands, something more dramatic is ultimately required to link each thread together. Neither the Granddaughter or her Grandfather change dramatically as a result of the tales they hear, and consequently, these sections feel a bit like a short story as well, albeit one stretched to breaking point.
Ultimately, The Tiger’s Wife is a fable about fables, and the effect they have on our world long after those who have inspired them have ceased to exist. If you’re willing to overlook the lack of a satisfactory overarching plot, then you’ll find something really special from a talent who’s certain to be around for years to come.