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Tiger's Wife (Obreht)

The Tiger's Wife
Tea Obreht, 2011
Random House
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385343831

Summary
Weaving a brilliant latticework of family legend, loss, and love, Tea Obreht, the youngest of The New Yorker’s twenty best American fiction writers under forty, has spun a timeless novel that will establish her as one of the most vibrant, original authors of her generation.

In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself.

But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.

Grief struck and searching for clues to her grandfather’s final state of mind, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child. On their weekly trips to the zoo he would read to her from a worn copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which he carried with him everywhere; later, he told her stories of his own encounters over many years with “the deathless man,” a vagabond who claimed to be immortal and appeared never to age.

But the most extraordinary story of all is the one her grandfather never told her, the one Natalia must discover for herself. One winter during the Second World War, his childhood village was snowbound, cut off even from the encroaching German invaders but haunted by another, fierce presence: a tiger who comes ever closer under cover of darkness. “These stories,” Natalia comes to understand, “run like secret rivers through all the other stories” of her grandfather’s life. And it is ultimately within these rich, luminous narratives that she will find the answer she is looking for. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—September 20, 1985
Where—Belgrade, Yugoslavia
Raised—Cyprus; Egypt; Georgia, & California, USA
Education—B.A., University of Southern California; M.A.
   Cornell University
Currently—lives in Ithica, New York


Tea Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia, and spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt before eventually immigrating to the United States in 1997.

Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Zoetrope: All-Story, The New York Times, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required ReadingThe Tiger’s Wife (2011), is her first novel.

She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Tea Obreht lives in Ithaca, New York.

Among many influences, Obreht has mentioned in press interviews the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Yugoslav Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, Isak Dinesen, and the children's writer Roald Dahl. (From the publisher and Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
Ms. Obreht…writes with remarkable authority and eloquence, and she demonstrates an uncommon ability to move seamlessly between the gritty realm of the real and the more primary-colored world of the fable. It's not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Gunter Grass as it is an extraordinarily limber exploration of allegory and myth making and the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs or supernatural legends) reveal—and reflect back—the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies and hatreds…Ms. Obreht has not only made a precocious debut, but she has also written a richly textured and searing novel.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


Ingeniously, Obreht juxtaposes [her protagonist’s] matter-of-fact narration with contemporary folk tales that are as simple, enthralling, and sometimes brutal as fables by Kipling or Dinesen…Filled with astonishing immediacy and presence, fleshed out with detail that seems firsthand, The Tiger’s Wife is all the more remarkable for being a product not of observation but imagination.... Arrestingly, Obreht shows that you don’t have to go back centuries to find history transformed into myth; the process can occur within a lifetime is a gifted observer is on hand to record it.
Lisl Shillinger - New York Times Book Review


Tea Obreht's swirling first novel…draws us beneath the clotted tragedies in the Balkans to deliver the kind of truth that histories can't touch. Born in Belgrade in 1985…she captures the thirst for consecration that a century of war has left in that bloody part of the world. It's a novel of enormous ambitions that manages in its modest length to contain the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, Turks and Ottomans, science and superstition.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife comes freighted with more critical anticipation than any debut novel in recent memory…That sort of unearned, pre-emptive prestige spurs both impossible expectations and skeptical readings – a burden that would doom most first novels Yet The Tiger’s Wife, in its solemn beauty and unerring execution, fully justifies the accolades that Ms. Obreht’s short fiction inspired. She has a talent for subtle plotting that eludes most writers twice her age, and her descriptive powers suggest a kind of channeled genius. No novel this year has seemed more likely to disappoint; no novel has been more satisfying.
Wall Street Journal


So rich with themes of love, legends and mortality that every novel that comes after it this year is in peril of falling short in comparison with its uncanny beauty…Not since Zadie Smith has a young writer arrived with such power and grace... [An] astounding debut novel.
Time


(Starred review.) The sometimes crushing power of myth, story, and memory is explored in the brilliant debut of Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker's 20-under-40. Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor living (and, in between suspensions, practicing) in an unnamed country that's a ringer for Obreht's native Croatia, crosses the border in search of answers about the death of her beloved grandfather, who raised her on tales from the village he grew up in, and where, following German bombardment in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo in a nearby city and befriended a mysterious deaf-mute woman. The evolving story of the tiger's wife, as the deaf-mute becomes known, forms one of three strands that sustain the novel, the other two being Natalia's efforts to care for orphans and a wayward family who, to lift a curse, are searching for the bones of a long-dead relative; and several of her grandfather's stories about Gavran Gaile, the deathless man, whose appearances coincide with catastrophe and who may hold the key to all the stories that ensnare Natalia. Obreht is an expert at depicting history through aftermath, people through the love they inspire, and place through the stories that endure; the reflected world she creates is both immediately recognizable and a legend in its own right. Obreht is talented far beyond her years, and her unsentimental faith in language, dream, and memory is a pleasure.
Publishers Weekly


In the torn-up Balkans, as medic Natalia is preparing to cross what was once not a border to help vaccinate orphans, she learns that her distinguished physician grandfather has died in an obscure clinic not far from where she's going. No one knows what he was doing there, though Natalia does know he was seriously ill. This incident opens up Obreht's dizzyingly nuanced yet crisp, muscularly written narrative by allowing Natalia to introduce two stories (fables? truth?) that her grandfather related to her. One concerns the "deathless man" her grandfather sometimes encountered, who collected the souls of the dead. The other concerns a tiger that escaped from the zoo during World War II and made its way to the village where her grandfather lived as a boy. Attempts to kill the tiger fail, but the butcher's abused, deaf-mute wife seems mystically connected to the great beast, rousing the villagers' fear and anger. That tiger—and others seen later at the zoo—looms here as a symbol of defiant, struggling hope as the deathless man continues his task.Verdict: Demanding one's full attention, this complex, humbling, and beautifully crafted debut from one of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 is highly recommended for anyone seriously interested in contemporary fiction.  —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal


(Starred review.) Not even Obreht’s place on The New Yorker’s current “20 Under 40” list of exceptional writers will prepare readers for the transporting richness and surprise of this gripping novel of legends and loss…[Contains] moments of breathtaking magic, wildness and beauty…Every word, every scene, every thought is blazingly alive in this many-faceted, spellbinding, and rending novel of death, succor, and remembrance.
Booklist



Discussion Questions
1. Natalia says that the key to her grandfather’s life and death “lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man.” What power do the stories we tell about ourselves have to shape our identity and help us understand our lives?

2. Which of the different ways the characters go about making peace with the dead felt familiar from your own life? Which took you by surprise?

3. Natalia believes that her grandfather’s memories of the village apothecary “must have been imperishable.” What lesson do you think he might have learned from what happened to the Apothecary?

4. What significance does the tiger have to the different characters in the novel: Natalia, her grandfather, the tiger’s wife, the villagers? Why do you think Natalia’s grandfather’s reaction to the tiger’s appearance in the village was so different than the rest of the villagers?

5. “The story of this war—dates, names, who started it, why—that belongs to everyone,” Natalia’s grandfather tells her. But “those moments you keep to yourself” are more important. By eliding place names and specific events of recent Balkan history, what do you think the author is doing?

6. When the deathless man and the grandfather share a last meal before the bombing of Sarobor, the grandfather urges the deathless man to tell the waiter his fate so he can go home and be with his family. Is Gavran Gailé right to decide to stop telling people that they are going to die? Would you rather know your death was coming or go “in suddenness”?

7. Did knowing more about Luka’s past make him more sympathetic? Why do you think the author might have chosen to give the back stories of Luka, Dariša the Bear, and the apothecary?

8. The copy of The Jungle Book Natalia’s grandfather always carries around in his coat pocket is not among the possessions she collects after his death. What do you think happens to it?

9. The novel moves back and forth between myth and modern-day “real life.” What did you think of the juxtaposition of folklore and contemporary realism?

10. Of all the themes of this novel—war, storytelling, family, death, myth, etc.—which one resonated the most for you?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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