The Tiger'sWife by Téa Obreht was the Orange Prize winner in 2011 (continuing an ad hoc challenge to read all the winners) and is also the sixth book from my TBR pile challenge 2013. What struck me most was the apparent youth of the author and the way the book has such various and tangled threads, something you would expect from someone with more life experience. It's one of those books that makes you think that in reality you have to have lived an interesting life, or at least had a culturally interesting background, in order to write a novel; the author was born on Yugoslavia and moved from there to escape the conflict, ending up in America; her writing is obviously informed very much by the traditional storytelling of her childhood.
So the story is about family, history, mythology and superstition. And war, but not war as in bombs and guns, but in the impact it has on a population and the culture. It takes place against the backdrop of the war that tore apart the country that was Yugoslavia but harks back to the period of World War Two and the childhood of our narrator's grandfather. I was a little confused for a while, because in fact there are two tigers; the one she visits with her grandfather, and the other that escapes from the zoo during the war and comes to find itself living outside her grandfather's village. The story moves back and forth in time, via the stories that he grandfather tells her about the deathless man and the tiger's wife. There are long digressions, like the story about Luca, who's only purpose seems to be to explain the presence of the young girl who becomes the tiger's wife, but I liked that about the book, it gave the whole tale a level of complexity that was very engaging. Further suggested reading in the back listed One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and though I never managed to finish that book I could see the link, both in the themes and the style. This book is similarly about history and dramatic change but also the unchanging nature of communities, about how myths and stories bind people together and create continuity. But it is also about the negative side of mythology and superstition; the men digging in the village for the body of a relative to lift a curse, and how the tiger's wife comes to symbolise the fear that the villagers have of the unknown and their desire to destroy the tiger and her is the only reaction that they can have to the situation.
Alongside the beautifully written story she makes some very interesting and astute observations of the effect of the war on a population (the second one here I found left me quite depressed, there is something hopeless about it):
"When your parents said, get your ass to school, it was alright to say, there's a war on, and go down to the riverbank instead. When they caught you sneaking into the house at three in the morning, your hair reeking of smoke, the fact that there was a war on prevented then from staving your head in. When they heard from neighbours that your friends had been spotted doing a hundred and twenty on the Boulevard with you hanging non too elegantly out the sunroof, they couldn't argue with there's a war on, we might die anyway. They felt responsible, and we took advantage of their guilt because we didn't know any better." (p.34-5)
"When your fight has purpose - to free you from something, to interfere on behalf of an innocent - it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling - when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event - there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it." (p.281)
I always enjoy feeling like I've learned something new when I read. The aforementioned Luka leaves his destiny of butchery (the chopping meat kind not the fighting kind) and goes off to find a new life as a wandering musician, playing the Gusla, which is one of these, a curious single stringed instrument (which you can hear being played here). He has a slightly idealised view of the life that he hopes to find, and it bought back down to earth rather abruptly:
"As to the musicians themselves, they were more complicated than Luca had originally expected, a little more ragtag, disorganised, a little more dishevelled and drunk than he had imagined. They were wanderers, mostly, and had a fast turnover rate because every six months or so someone would fall in love and get married, one would die of syphilis or tuberculosis, and at least one would be arrested for some minor offence and hanged in the town square as an example to the others." (p.195)
Anyway, having meandered though history for a while we return to the present, and a young woman trying to make sense of her grandfather's death and life, and the strange events going on in the orchard outside the house she is staying in. Really just a quote that I liked because of the image at the end, but on re-reading says something interesting about how dislocating death is:
"The heat of the day, compounded by my early morning in the vineyard, had caught up with me. I felt I'd waited years for the body to be found, though I'd only heard about it that morning - somehow being in Zdrevkov had changed everything, and I didn't know what I was waiting for anymore. My backpack was on my knees, my grandfather's belongings folded up inside. I wondered what they would look like without him: his watch, his wallet, his hat, reduced by his absence to objects you could find at a flea market, in somebody's attic." (p.232)
And another one, about death, because in many ways the story is about death, and what it means. It kind of sums up what went wrong in Yugoslavia:
"I married your grandmother in a church, but I would still have married her if her family had asked me to be married by a hodza. What does it hurt me to say happy Eid to her, once a year - when she is perfectly happy to light a candle for my dead in the church? I was raised Orthodox; on principle, I would have had your mother christened Catholic to spare her a full dunking in that filthy water they kept in the baptismal tureens. In practice, I didn't have her christened at all. My name, your name, her name. In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground." (p.282-3)
All in all a lovely tale, in the traditional sense of the word; it felt as if I was reading something written much much longer ago.