Sunday, March 16, 2014

READING FOR THE BALKANS: THE TIGER'S WIFE


I posted several suggestions for nonfiction and nearly nonfiction books to read if you happen to be traveling to Sarajevo, but if you prefer fiction, then The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht is a wonderful choice.

Set in an unknown country in the Balkans, the author draws from regional legends to create a story that is grounded both in present reality and in an enigmatic, mythological past.

On the surface, the story is about a young woman doctor on a mission of mercy in an orphanage in one of the war-torn Balkan countries.  While working to vaccinate all the children, the doctor senses that there are things below the surface of reality that her hosts aren't telling her. There are secrets everywhere, including some surrounding the recent death of her beloved grandfather, who was also a physician. As she tries to make sense of the sometimes strange world around her and to cope with the loss of the person who has meant more to her than anyone else, she remembers her frequent trips to the zoo with her grandfather and the stories he read to her from his well-worn copy of Kipling's Jungle Book. She also remembers his tales about his many encounters over the years with a "deathless man." One more bizarre story about a tiger that stalked her grandfather's village during a World War II winter when he was a young boy is the most mysterious story of all.

And that's all I'm going to tell you.

A review in The New York Times describes the power of Obreht's writing:

Think back to the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, with their profusion of names that are difficult to pronounce and acts that are painful to recall: the massacres at Brcko and Srebrenica, the bombing of bread lines in Sarajevo, the destruction of Mostar's 400-year-old bridge.

None of these appear in Tea Obreht's first novel, "The Tiger's Wife," yet in its pages she brings their historical and human context to luminous life. With fables and allegories, as well as events borrowed from the headlines, she illustrates the complexities of Balkan history, unearthing patterns of suspicion, superstition, and everyday violence that pervade the region even in times of peace. Reaching back to World War II, and then to wars that came before, she reveals the continuity beneath the clangor.

Obreht was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in the former Yugoslavia in 1985. She was just 26 years old when this, her debut novel, was published. The Tiger's Wife has won numerous awards, including Great Britain's prestigious Orange Prize, which is awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length English-language novel published in the United Kingdom the previous year.

The Tiger's Wife may not help you understand the details of the history of the Balkan countries, but it might give you a glimpse of the region's soul.

2 comments:

  1. I missed "The" and read the title as "Tiger's Wife" and thought it was going to be about golfing, cheating spouses. This book sounds MUCH more interesting.

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  2. I loved this book, but I "heard" it on Audible and had a great time talking it over with my mother. Some of my favorite passages were the conversations with the deathless man, and I've been tempted more than once to pick up a paperback version of this to re-read, slowly, and underline and ponder. I do think she adequately imparted the sense of the war zone, without hitting the reader over the head, and as we prepare for our trip, I'm happy to have read it.

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