Of tigers, myths and wars

Téa Obreht The book under review won its author, Téa Obreht, the Orange Prize 2011. To win a prestigious book award at 25 must feel good. Just as good as the accolades stacked up in a short career: previous Orange Prize winner Ann Patchett called her “tremendously talented”; Irish literary genius and academic Colum McCann said, “she is the most thrilling literary discovery in years”; T C Boyle called her “towering new talent”. Téa Obreht has also been the youngest person on the 2010 list from The New Yorker’s list of best 20 American writers under 40.

That’s a bit too much of a prodigy perspective for the reader to handle, regarding an Orange Prize winner, but one cannot turn away from the truth that Téa Obreht has quite a portfolio on display: she has published fiction in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Atlantic and other spaces that count on the literary meter. The reader is, therefore, very expectant, yet cautious too; loud bells have been reduced to less-than-whimpers on previous occasions. Well, Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife is unusual, literary, intriguing, original and everything one expects from a writer of the MFA genre.

The Tiger's Wife ReviewThe premise is original and set in former Yugoslavia; Téa Obreht hails from Serbia, former part of the erstwhile Yugoslavia. The book has two narratives that run in parallel. The first is of Natalie, a young medico, who is travelling to a far-off place on a mission to deliver vaccines to an orphanage. She receives the news of the death of her grandfather, an iconic figure of her childhood, with whom she “worshipped” at the local zoo on regular jaunts.

The grandfather has died at a place quite away from his home and his body is returned by the hospital without his belongings. It is here that the superstitions enter the story to take it forward. Natalie sets out to find the mystery behind the grandfather’s death; not the reason – she knew he had cancer and as a doctor, he too knew that – but why he went away to die.

The parallel story centres on the grandfather’s boyhood set during Nazi invasion, and focuses on a Tiger set free from a bombed-out zoo, a woman referred to as the Tiger’s wife and a deathless man. Connecting the two narratives is a book, Kipling’s Jungle Book, which the grandfather carries around with him, as she remembers from her childhood. The Balkans in which she places her canvas is not the one she knows well as far as contemporary history is concerned, as Obreht has admitted in interviews. But the myths and superstitions of the terrain have been mapped in her mind and ingrained in her blood and it seeps through in every word she writes, at times visible, at times not.

Obreht travels from mind to mind at will, and is very good at convincing the reader and taking him along. The visual quality of the writing is excellent. The digressions in the narrative can almost be seen as a technique; although one gets the feeling at times that it’s a coached one from the MFA realms. Obreht actually spills her writing beyond the ambiguous boundaries of her natural style that peeps in wonderfully in the text, albeit at intervals. The pace of the book is so just right, and the author has a control on how much suspense is the exact dose for the moment.

Obreht can craft a good sentence, her prose is near perfect; all that MFA training has not gone to waste. And it’s obvious that the author loves what she is doing, viz. telling a tale. There are glimpses of Rushdie, (yes, magical realism is a strong presence), Hemingway and Marquez scattered through the book. Obreht has admitted in interviews that she adores these literary giants and the influence certainly shows through. Yet, she has a natural bent, and a voice that will definitely become very distinctive with more writing.

However, in spite of all these individual plus points that should predictably blend to make a thrilling book, there is something missing in the whole. The elements that please the reader don’t add up to a Wow read or an I-couldn’t-put-down read for some reason the reader cannot pinpoint. I can only think that whatever short fiction I read online by this author has been much more impressive. Long fiction perhaps needs more practice. The author herself has admitted in innocent humility that “I haven’t been good enough!”, her first reaction after the Orange Prize win was announced.

In Conversation: Tea Obreht, Author of ‘The Tiger’s Wife’.

Frankly, she is right. Obreht has to travel a long way before we can call her writing holistically brilliant. As of now she is a young writer who shows a truckload of promise. Separately, one can read The Tiger’s Wife as the novel that won the Orange Prize 2010, the youngest win so far in its history.

Perhaps the book will be accepted unquestionably by a Young Adult audience?

Téa Obreht
Hachette 2011
338 pages; Rs 695

Originally published in the Business Standard which you can read here.


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