Heritage of Folktales makes sense of War-torn Former Yugoslavia

This is my review of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

It is easy to see why this book won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. It has an unusual theme and approach, weaving together a grandfather's tall stories based on Balkan-style folktales and the experience of Natalia, a young doctor trying to cope with the aftermath of the grim war which caused the recent fracture of the former Yugoslavia, and with the death of her much-loved grandfather. Still only in her mid-twenties, the author is a gifted storyteller with an impressive command of English learned as a second language. I am not sure whether she sometimes misuses words by mistake, or is just trying to be original and poetical, but you cannot deny Tea Obreht's striking and unusual use of language.

Although I am no lover of magic realism, I was most impressed by the storytelling, in particular the tale of the "deathless man" who cannot be killed, even if shot through the head or drowned – a sceptical scientist, Natalia's grandfather is tantalised by the mounting evidence for this which flies in the face of reason. Obreht clearly loves animals, of which there are some wonderful descriptions – the tiger leaving footprints in the snow, round as dinner plates, or the elephant recaptured after its escape from the war-damaged zoo.

At first I was irritated by the lack of clarity as to exactly which country we are in – Montenegro, Croatia. Bosnia ? – which border we are close to, and so on. Then I realised that this is not the point. Obreht simply wants to create a sense of the superstition and prejudice, the deep-seated and irrational hatred between Christians and Moslems, the brutality and unthinking futility of war, and the residue of damage for the survivors. Then there is of course the simple expression of grief over the death of a close relative, regardless of whether there is peace or war.

I found the descriptions of Natalia's work the least satisfying, too many minor scenes of little interest, and in need of editing. Some of the later tales told to Natalia by her grandfather become rather tedious and rambling, getting bogged down in excessive back story about the early lives of Luka the sadistic butcher, Darisa the bear hunter and the village apothecary.

From the outset, Obreht skilfully manages to arouse the reader's interest by covering events through a series of separate scenes which move back and forth in time. Natalia's attempt to find out more about her grandfather's death and to obtain his belongings has a touch of the detective novel. Towards the end, the plot loses structure and pace. Again perhaps deliberately, it becomes even more fragmented and further parts company with reality, proving a little too fey and nebulous for my taste, although there is a persistent rather odd attempt to provide rational explanations for implausible events.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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