A tricky book to categorise, with SO many threads (and this review will do likewise): Natalia recounts her memories of two periods in her life: childhood and a journey she makes as a young doctor in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia. These are mingled with magical-realistic stories of a generation or two earlier, and references to Shere Khan in Kipling’s “The Jungle Book
There are also longish diversions into the backstory of other characters (Luka
, the husband of "the Tiger’s Wife", and Darisa the Bear
), which may or may not be apocryphal. This does make it disjointed and creates a little confusion at times: I wasn't always immediately certain what was meant to be true and what was allegorical, or if and how the different strands related to each other.
THEMES and CONTEXT
In addition to the obvious themes of life, death, belief, and war, the issues of sexuality, disability, and whether people should know they are going to die are explored. There is a LOT going on in this book; I almost wonder if it would be better as a set of novellas.
I also felt rather hampered by my lack of knowledge of the region or its recent history, but that is my failing, not Obreht's (adding more background information would have spoiled the book).
Nevertheless, the book drew me in, although by half to two-thirds of the way in, I was enjoying it rather less, but I did finish it, and I’m glad I did so.
It opens with Natalia being taken to see a tiger at the zoo by her grandfather, who tells her the story of the Tiger’s Wife
, which is threaded through the book. She explains, “Because I am little and my love of tigers comes from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself”. Her deep love for her grandfather endured, but “By the time I was thirteen, the ritual of [seeing] the tigers had become an annoyance… I was the prisoner of a rite I no longer felt necessary. I didn't know at the time that the rite wasn't solely for my benefit.”
The other crucial story is that of the Deathless Man
, and this too, is woven through the contemporary story. I wonder how differently would I have read the book if this had been its title.
The two stories are key to understanding the grandfather. His roles in them are part of what made him the man he is, and yet telling them takes him back to childhood. They also highlight the apparent contradiction of a man of science (a doctor) not just retaining traditional superstitions, but continuing to invest them with so much meaning and to pass them on.
The experience and aftermath of war is well described (fighting, shortages, betrayal, interrogation, suspicion, and also bizarre fun, such as vigils at the zoo during bombing raids – dressed as animals), but I wished I could see it more vividly: instead, it conjured images of WW2 France, because that is more familiar (albeit from films). After the war, and having lost his job, grandfather has “an overwhelming desire to revisit lost places, to re-establish unmaintained rituals. The zoo was one of these”. This explains his final journey, but also those of some of the other characters.
The effect of war also demonstrates people’s desire to believe: “when confounded by the extremes of life – whether good or bad – people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events… No matter how great the secret, how imperative absolute silence, someone would always feel the urge to confess, and an unleashed secret was a terrible force.”
There is a LOT of death, much of it strange: the Deathless Man, Luka dead/missing, exhuming a body in a vineyard, the mystery of grandfather's death, Darisa's taxidermy and (separately!) his epileptic sister. Darisa uses taxidermy to pre-empt Death and “flush him from his hiding places”, where he “hovered in the spaces between things… If he kept Death there, invited and preoccupied… it would not wander the house.”
Names are given power, and it is surely significant that no one knows the name of the Tiger’s Wife – not even her husband. A name assigns identity (personal, ethnic, religious - crucial during civil war) and allegory. This means they can’t truly be changed, “his old name, and what it meant, would follow him.”
Natalia seems like an omniscient narrator, yet she frequently acknowledges that information comes second-hand, and even from those who were born after the events they described. This contradiction niggled a little (which is odd, because other strands are clearly not the literal truth).
I think this is a good book, but just not especially to my taste. I feel that I missed a lot of the depth it probably has (either that, or it’s pretentious twaddle, and its fans are like the crowd admiring the clothes of the naked emperor!).
QUOTES that made me think:
• “There was something determined about the way the blue paint clung to the shutters and the door.”
• During the war, “They [government] were going for structure, control, for panic that produced submission – what they got instead was social looseness and lunacy… the kind of celebration that happens when people, without acknowledging it, stand on the brink of disaster.”
• A Walkman was “the angry wheels of my contraband spinning through the plastic window.”
• “The pattern into which we had fallen as a family over the years, the tendency to lie about each other’s physical condition and whereabouts to spare one another’s feelings and fears.”
• “The tiger had no destination, only the constant tug of self-preservation in the pit of his stomach.” And later, “Necessity drew him slowly out of his domesticated clumsiness.”
• The apothecary’s shop had “swollen bottles of remedies” and he would “revel in their calm, controlled promise of wellness… things that signified another plane of reality.”
• Orphans being vaccinated were “oblivious to pain, unmoved in practice by the things that kids at home reacted against on principle.”
• “The dead are celebrated. The dead are loved. They give something to the living.”
• “The tracks were heavy with hesitation here… he was choking on his own fear.”