The Tiger’s Wife. Tea Obreht.

Obreht, Tea. The Tiger’s Wife. Random House, New York, 2011. F; 9/21.

Not long ago I was on a walk with my seven-year-old granddaughter and her dad, and she favoured me with one of those moments where you later wish you’d really been on your A game: “Do you believe in magic?” I thought for a moment about what magic might be in her mind and then said, “Yes and no”. She skipped ahead and caught up with her father. Another missed opportunity.

This story is about enough that I actually read it twice (which is rare): personified animals, respect for elders, the practice of medicine, life’s twists and turns, the horror of war, superstition, influence of upbringing, and small towns. But three more things stand out from all the others: ambivalence, death with a capital D, and magic. I don’t think it quite manages the full-throated mature sorcery of Wallace or Nabokov, but for a first novel it comes pretty close and a couple of times it had me excited and scribbling notes in the middle of the night.

(I haven’t necessarily highlighted the plot spoilers in the following.) Narrator Natalia is a young doctor who travels with her friend Zora to a town in what is now a different country (the scene is unnamed but resembles the former Yugoslavia, countries sketched but anonymous, cities fictional) to immunize children in an orphanage. She takes a side trip to where her grandfather has just died, to retrieve his personal effects and returns to end up helping gypsies fulfil an obscure death ritual. It’s Natalia’s reminiscence about her brilliant, respected, eccentric, physician grandfather as a child, mature man, and then recently deceased that is the psychological content, in which several minor characters are described and two magical ones appear: the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man.

During bombing of “the city” in the grandfather’s youth a tiger escapes from the zoo and makes his way to the outskirts of Galina, the little town where the grandfather grew up. Local butcher Luka leaves his deaf mute wife who forms an ambiguous relationship with the tiger (becoming in the gossip of the village the Tiger’s Wife when she is found to be pregnant) and is helped and befriended by the grandfather at age 10.

Later as a young physician the grandfather tries to treat a man called Gavran Gaile who has been shot twice in the back of the head and who tells him that he is “deathless”, having broken a promise to his uncle who is some sort of a God figure. Skeptical grandfather lets this Deathless Man prove himself by being weighted down in a lake for several hours and then walking out the other side. This character makes two other appearances, one many years later when he encounters grandfather in a restaurant in a town about to be bombed, and then to Natalia when she is involved with the gypsies carrying out superstitious rituals about a body they have dug up in a vineyard. The Deathless Man describes to the grandfather in the restaurant how he is condemned to read the immediate future of people – death versus continued life – in the dregs of a coffee cup he carries. He is being punished for the mistake he made of falling in love and misusing his power to prevent his lover from dying.

To call the plot cul-de-sacs complex is an understatement. Luka the butcher is a sensitive gay budding musician who was ready to marry a mostly platonic girlfriend who at the last moment leaves him for a famous physician (who is the Deathless Man we later discover, she also the love responsible for causing him to break his promise to the all-powerful uncle) only to have the girl’s father pawn off on Luka as a consolation prize wife his teenage other daughter (who eventually falls pregnant as the Tiger’s Wife) whom Luka takes home and physically abuses until he leaves her.

The desperate townspeople, terrified that the Tiger is the devil and will eventually curse, if not eat, all of them, hire Darisa the Bear to finish the Tiger off. Darisa had become a famous hunter and taxidermist to ward off the death of his epileptic sister, growing up in a wealthy household that eventually went broke. An apothecary in the town with a long history of his own eventually poisons the Tiger’s Wife.

Natalia, staying with a family in the town where she and Zora are doing the immunizing, understands that most of the gypsies digging in the nearby vineyard have an infectious disease (probably TB) but finally helps them deal with the body they are digging to try to find, only to run across the Deathless Man who is involved with seeing to properly processing the body.

And so on. But at certain points author Obreht manages the artistic trick of helping the reader (me at least) see how magic could be real even though it isn’t. She accomplishes this partly by the wildly sinister and ambiguous tone of her writing, and partly as it dawns that strange animals becoming human is no more ridiculous or “magical” than ordinary processes of life: (of the grandfather) “… what if, by the same magic that made him a man, the Tiger had changed the girl into a tiger as well?”

As I read about the grandfather chasing the Tiger’s Wife through midnight winter to help her rescue the tiger from the hunter Darisa

“…with the snow groaning under his boots, (as) he ran blindly forward… he got stuck, briefly, among the icy rocks, and then began to slope upward sharply through the thickets at the lip of the forest.”

the emotion of the chase and the twisting of personified natural features (groaning snow, lip of the forest) made the scene horrifying and for a moment the whole supernatural part of the plot more real. Obreht relieves the dark superstition buried in the torn country by weaving wacky modernity around and inside a cynical and sinister tradition of war. Students in the medical school succeed by impressing the anatomy custodian so they receive more cadavers “so (they) could take that first step toward nonchalance in the face of death.” Two boys’ legs are blown off by an old mine. Paramilitaries kill a teenager and throw him in a dumpster. The seemingly outrageous Deathless Man is both Natalia and her grandfather’s shared fable of death, and also a flesh-and-blood character in the story.

In the end I don’t mind a few psychological and artistic loose ends in this complicated and gripping story. As I’ve said before I guess we read fiction to have an experience that changes us a bit. Out of an enviable, wonderful, but fundamentally humdrum existence I got twisted around a little trying to figure out exactly what was going on and maybe came out the other end of that a bit less rectangular in my perceptions. I’ll be watching for what this writer comes up with next.

It’ll be a few years before I can recommend this kind of fiction to my magically curious granddaughter. I can only hope to help her get it when she runs across the real thing.

Highly recommended with only slight reservation. 9.2/9.5

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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