Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

I’ve just fallen in love with a brand new author, Téa Obreht. I’m not alone in my admiration. The New Yorker included Obreht in its recent list of 20 best American authors under 40. At only 26, Obreht is the youngest, and yet her voice has the maturity of a seasoned author.

The Tiger’s Wife (2011), Obreht’s debut novel, is set in a war-torn Balkans country. Obreht, now a New Yorker, was born in the former Yugoslavia. As a child, I once vacationed there and was appalled later at the violence that tore a nation apart. Although the author didn’t live there during the war, it felt like she had. She describes the horrors of World War II and the more recent conflicts in the Balkans with an unflinching eye that reminded me of the authors Geraldine Brooks and Michael Ondaatje.

As The Tiger’s Wife opens, Natalia takes a break from inoculating orphans to collect the physical and spiritual remains of her grandfather, who was also a doctor. His life is recalled in a series of fables mixed with local folklore, reminding me of the novels of Louise Erdrich and of Isabel Allende. His boyhood recollections include a love story between an escaped tiger and a deaf-mute woman (hence the title). There is also a “deathless man” who cannot die but predicts death and a bear hunter who becomes his own prey. Paradoxically, it is easier to believe these supernatural tales when a skeptical narrator offers alternative scientific explanations.

The story is well told:
“There was something familiar about the room and the village, a crowded feeling of sadness that crawled into my gut, but not for the first time, like a note of music I could recognize but not name.”
“I said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and regretted it immediately, because it just fell out of my mouth and continued to fall, and did nothing.”
As you can see, I finally figured out how to highlight quotations on my Kindle. They were very easy to retrieve from an automatic clippings folder. On my third ebook, I got so caught up in the story that the reading experience did not feel that different. After finishing, though, I bought a hardback copy for my home library and another for my parents as a visiting gift.

An e-book just doesn’t feel as permanent as a book. It’s like the difference between an email and a handwritten letter from a dear friend, although an ebook is much easier to read in bits on the go. Am I ever on the go: my daughter has lead roles in 2 plays and is playing lacrosse. I won’t be buying doubles of all my e-books, just my absolute favorites . . . my name is Sarah Laurence, and I’m a book junkie. It’s been 2 weeks since my last purchase. My bookshelves are groaning, and my Kindle is moaning.

Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan

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A Cuban In London said...

I loved the first sentence of your post. That, too, has happened to me on many occasions. You fall head over heels for someone's writing.

I was as absorbed in Obreht's childhood's experiences as I was in finding out that you had been there as well. Please, elaborate. We like gossip (of the healthy type, mind) in cyberspace. :-)

I like books that mix local folklore with 'straight' writing. It makes them more vivid and colourful.

Thank you very much for this lovely piece. Wish your daughter luck and good on you for not forsaking print! :-)

Greetings from London.

tina said...

Congrats to her for making the list! I must check out this book now. It sounds really good.

Beth Kephart said...

She reminds you of Michael Ondaatje?

I was going to buy this book anyway but now I am SO there!!!

Thanks for this review (and for your recent comment.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is already on my list. Sounds brilliant.

troutbirder said...

This will definitely go on my to be read list. There is something about the sad history of Yugoslavia that touches me. Probably inspired by one of the best books I ever read (I don't say that lightly) It was "The Bridge on the Drina" by Ivo Andri'c

Bee said...

I've been writing about war novels, too, but the Balkans conflict has definitely been an undertold (am I making that word up?) story. Would you say this is a YA book for older readers?

I made a vow to not buy any new books, and I haven't managed to keep it at all. Still a Kindle hold-out, though. But then I don't even have a laptop!

walk2write said...

Folklore is such an integral part of history and telling a good story. I'm not sure why so many American authors ignore it. We have some pretty rich stuff of our own, if you know where to look.

I'm definitely going to look this one up and try to find a spot for it on one of the bulging bookcases in our new place. You're not the only book junkie.

septembermom said...

I like the lyrical quality of the piece of writing that you shared. I'll definitely check this young author out. Thanks!

Barrie said...

I loved the excerpts you posted--so poetic. I *might* be getting a kindle for Mother's Day. :) Thanks for joining in and for fixing the code! What would I do without you?!

Ellen Booraem said...

Oh lord, another book for the wobbly TBR pile. As you probably can figure out, Sarah, I do love books that combine reality with a touch of the fantastic.

And thanks for the comments on the Kindle experience. I'm still not on board, although I've got travel coming up and am deeply tempted. The checking account, of course, is Not Amused.

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, I wish I had an exciting story to share, but my parents just took my brother and me to an island resort in Yugoslavia one summer in the 1970s for fun. I remember the smell of blooming trees, swimming every day and reading Wonder Woman comics. I had a golden lasso, really a chain from a hardware store, which I was learning to throw. The most dangerous moment was almost walking into a poisonous spider’s web on a hike. It was a peaceful holiday, and war was unimaginable.

Tina, Beth, Patti and septembermom, I’m so happy to hear so much enthusiasm for this book - enjoy!

Troutbirder, thanks for the recommendation, and I’d love to hear your informed opinion on this book.

Bee, undertold should be word if it isn’t. The protagonist is a young woman in her 20’s and there are several teen and child characters so this novel would appeal to mature teens like your oldest daughter. I would have loved it at her age. It was, however, written in a literary style for an adult audience.

W2W, I’ve been thinking of writing a novel for teens that would draw on Native American folklore. Tea Obreht and Louise Erdrich are inspiring me. I think you’d love the Tiger’s Wife.

Barrie, the other half of the present would be time to read your new Kindle in peace. Thanks for hosting another book review club! It’s nice to feel wanted.

Ellen, you’ll love this novel then. If you can resist the temptation of buying hardcover books on top of ebooks, you’ll pay back the cost of your reader. Ebooks of adult fiction are half the cost of new release hardcovers. There isn’t as much of a saving for YA and MG. I’m reading a digital galley on my Kindle now so that’s another advantage. Mostly, I love it for travel and reading on the go, even if I prefer a real book at home. It was a great gift!

Beth Yarnall said...

The writing excerpts were wonderful. Thanks for introducing Tea Obreht. I love finding new authors!

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Sarah

Enjoyed the review! I am working on which books I will be reading for the Summer and this book will be on the list.

I have not given in to an e-reader-maybe down the road.

Tracy :)

Amanda Summer said...

ah, wonderful review, sarah. i had read the nyt review of this book and was equally enthralled by the author's young age yet seasoned voice. any book in the genre of mystical realism, as this seems to touch upon, is a must-read for me.

so your girl has the lead in 2 plays now and finds time to play lacrosse? with a budding actress on your hands, it will be interesting to see how she gravitates between the arts and sports in the years ahead.

p.s. love your 'confession' at the end :D

Sarah Laurence said...

Beth and Tracy, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this new author.

Amanda, I’m a fan of mystical realism too. By high school next year my daughter will have to make some tough choices. On top of acting and sports, she also plays 2 instruments, writes and draws. It’s easier to do it all when you’re young and the time expectations are lower. This is the time to explore, and for me to drive. It’s nice to have a rare home day to catch up on blogs today.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

Thanks for the lovely review Sarah. The Tiger's Wife sounds like one for the shelves. I like the portion you quoted very much. I must say your habit is infecting. My book buying is getting worse since I met you. I am sure for others as well.

All the best to your daughter!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Excellent review--I particularly liked how you compared this author to others. Sounds like a very unique book.

I've had my Kindle since Christmas and have only read one complete book on it. There's just something about holding a book in your hand...

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

I've read some great reviews about this book - and reading yours seals it. I usually avoid books with supernatural elements (just never could get into them) but this sounds too good to miss.

Few things excite me more than books. We must continue to support struggling book publishers. I've been holding out on purchasing a Kindle but it will probably be the only way to go soon.

Thanks Sarah.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I am working on a review of this book at this very moment! I adored every page.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mama Shujaa, it’s the literary bug for book worms!

Alyssa, her writing was unique. The more you use your Kindle, the more acclimated you will become but that doesn’t diminish the value of a real book. I got mine for Christmas too. I’m on my 6th ebook now. I’ve read as many real books in that time too.

Bonnie, the supernatural element is quite mild. It actually reminded me of dreams. There were fables, ghost stories and superstitions, which have alternative explanations. Most of the narrative feels quite realistic. I don’t think books will ever disappear, but the ebook market share is growing quickly. These days most publishers do both paper and ebooks so they aren’t suffering. The harder hit would be independent bookstores so be sure to shop there for real books.

Pamela, I’m looking forward to reading your review.

Booksnyc said...

Ok - you have convinced me to read this (especially with your comparison to Geraldine Brooks!)

I am wading into ebooks too - they were so convenient when I was traveling earlier this year and anytime I can lighten my load on the subway commute, I do. But I have so many paper books I imagine I will be living in both worlds for a long time!

☆sapphire said...


Thanks for introducing a good novel to us, Sarah. I want to read it!! It looks like the fables mixed with local folklore, which must be an important feature of the Balkan culture, finds ample and appropriate place in her novel. I love to read folklore and myths.

Oh I don't have a Kindle or an ebook. I'm far behind you.

Linda McLaughlin said...

I've always been interested in the Balkans (not sure why) so I'll have to check this out. Glad you're enjoying your Kindle. It's a great device for book junkies like us. Mine is groaning, too.

Anonymous said...

I like the quotes, their play with words and imagionation. Just yesterday I finished reading a book that was adventurous and full of historical connections but I felt like sort of dragged by all those explanations of historical facts from the beginning of the book to the end. Either the style of the language or the story focused plainly at the facts might have been to blame. No poetry, either obvious or hidden...

Alyson | New England Living said...

I love books that use folklore! That's the sort of thing I'd actually like to do in something that I write. Now, I must read that book!

Still having a hard time coming onboard with the kindle/nook thing. Would seem like such a disconnected experience compared to reading an actual book, but then again I've heard from so many others who thought the same thing as me and then fell in love with their e-readers! Maybe one of these days. Although, just last night I was thinking a nook color might be nice for magazines. I usually end up throwing out magazines after awhile and it feels like such a waste.

Stacy said...

I'm late in commenting, but that sounds like a must read.

cynthia said...

oh yes... "my name is Sarah Laurence, and I’m a book junkie. It’s been 2 weeks since my last purchase. My bookshelves are groaning, and my Kindle is moaning."