You could be forgiven for thinking that as it won the Orange Prize on Wednesday I have banged out a review of ‘The Tigers Wife’ by Téa Obreht quick sharp. You would also be half right. I’ve speeded up finally publishing my thoughts about it, which have been rewritten, edited and rewritten and then edited again and again on and off since I finished it. You see myself and this book felt like we had unfinished business and thoughts, not necessarily bad ones, just puzzling ones. But in the name of it winning said prize I thought I should write about it sooner rather than later.
I probably would have wanted to read Téa Obreht’s debut novel at some point regardless of its inclusion on the Orange Prize long and short lists and then winning it because, regardless of the hype of her being claimed a young writer to watch, I like books that are rather magical and ‘fairytale for grown ups’ was one of the things I kept hearing in regard to ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ when it was mentioned. It is also a novel about the country formerly known as Yugoslavia and its break up, a subject which fascinates me. I actually holidayed there as a child and was fascinated by the news as this country was torn apart. So its interesting that while aspects of it were brilliance, overall I was left a tiny bit let down. Let me explain…
For me one of the greatest charms of ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ was the story of the relationship between grandfather and grandchild. Our narrator, Natalia a doctor, tells us the tale of her grandfather’s life from the memories she has of him and the tales that he told her of his former life after she learns from her grandmother that he has died in mysterious circumstances and after he disappeared telling everyone he was going to see Natalia. It’s the mystery, the fact some of his possessions are missing and the need to understand him that sets Natalia on a mental, rather than physical, journey to work out just who her grandfather was.
“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.”
The thing I loved about the novel also became the thing that I didn’t love so much about it. As the story goes on we are introduced to the myths and fables of her grandfather’s life. Whilst I love these sort of ‘fairytales for adults’, sometimes I was just confused by them. I would read them, like the tale of the deathless man, really enjoy them and yet be left wondering as to their relevance as a whole. In being rather surreal I felt that Téa Obreht lost me in places no matter how enjoyable, funny and magical the mini story which creates the overall story (anyone else getting a bit confused?) was I couldn’t get it to work overall.
“I would be insane to stay here,” he says to me in an exasperated voice. “Any minute now your Hungarian is going to go outside and call the others, and then there will be business with garlic and stakes and things. And even though I cannot die, I have to tell you that I do not enjoy having a tent peg put in my ribs. I’ve had it before, and I do not want it again.”
The same applied to the title character/fable of ‘The Tiger’s Wife’, it was all wonderfully written and inventive but… but… but… something wasn’t quite working for me. It seemed in some ways to be a book made up of many things, yes I know most books are but these things didn’t quite connect. It seemed to want to be a book of myth and of storytelling, a book of war and a book of love – both of the family and a love story in some ways. I thought the way Obreht discussed how the country was fracturing and yet no one initially sensed danger until loved ones went missing was superb. It was only a part of the book though. In some ways there were two books in one. In fact the best way to summarise this novel would be to say that I think the sum of its parts are fantastic, and would have made a great short story collection yet as a body of work it didn’t quite gel in the way I was hoping or maybe even expecting, that could be me more than the book or the author.
That said I did like this novel a lot. I particularly enjoyed the mini-stories, and would happily read a collection of fables should Téa Obreht write one, in fact I am hoping she does. As for the hype around Téa Obreht being one of the finest young authors around, I would agree to an extent. I found the writing in ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ was impressive, funny, dark, honest, and quite compelling in many respects. I just didn’t quite connect with it personally (where emotion is occasionally lacking imagination is certainly in abundance) yet I certainly enjoyed getting lost, and occasionally confused by it. I will definitely read her next novel or collection. 7.5/10
This book was kindly sent by the publisher.
Do I think that ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ should have won the Orange prize? I wouldn’t want to take anything away from Téa Obreht who must be the happiest 25 year old (seriously, though it is a little sickening how young she is, ha) at the moment, plus I wasn’t asked to judge the prize. It’s great to see a young, clearly talented, author celebrated like this too. What do you think? Has anyone else read ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ and what did you make of it? If you haven’t, will you be in the near future, or does the whole hype put you off?
26 responses to “The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht”
The hype neither attracts nor repels me, if I see it in my library I’ll probably try it and make up my own mind as you have done.
Thats a good attitude to have on it Dark Puss I have to say. I thought it was a promising start, not a great one, definitely not a poor one, a promising one. Thats tact for you.
Having read (and reviewed) The Tiger’s Wife upon release, I think that Obreht deserves the Orange prize for one reason, her skill with the English language. Her writing is mystical and romantic. Her crafting of a sentence is wonderful.
I’m also glad, however, that we agree on general opinion of the content. The Deathless man was the hook in the novel for me, but I often found myself wondering where it all fit together. I wanted more from that plotline in particular, but none of them felt fulfilled. It was as if she was trying to intertwine three stories but couldn’t quite smooth it all out.
Overall, it’s a quality book and well done to her. I just wanted something a little more concise.
I think her writing is mystical and magical, I also think that the fact it is these things seems to make the fact that the book then doesnt quite make sense is ‘okay’ and I am not sure it is. The book is brilliant in theory, its written very well, its just lacking a finesse in the execution and pulling together of stray parts.
I struggled to finish it, finding it too meandering and lacking plot. I liked Natalia, but disliked the deathless man. The writing was undoubtedly beautifully crafted, but it lacked a drive and emotional punch for me.
I think that the fable element was what made the emotional aspects of the book a little ‘meh’ for me. I really liked all the characters, even the deathless man who actually made me laugh. I just thought Swamplandia mized the surreal and real far far better, which reminds me, my review of that really needs to go up soon.
I really had to force myself to finish this, I didn’t like Natalia at all, i couldn’t warm to her. I liked the relationship between her and the grandfather and the opening seemed promising then it bombed for me.. My favourite part is the tiger escaping from the zoo.. i really wanted to like this, the blurb had me but it just wasn’t for me and i don’t think it should’ve won…
I felt very similar Louise, I really wanted to like this book… but…
It’s interesting that this book won and yet its the book I have seen the most negative reviews, or reviews saying ‘what?’, on the entire longlist. Very odd. But it did have moments of beauty and promise to be fair.
Your review actually made me want to pick this up! lol I haven’t paid much attention to the hype, since I’m not a big awards reader.
Apart from The Green Carnation Prize of course Eva, hem, hem lol.
I am glad it made you want to give this book a try because I would never want to put someone off a book by any means. Its a book where if it had all just come together a little more this could have been amazing.
I enjoyed this simon like you I like balkan set books and her age just bodes well if she can write this at 24 what can she write in the future ? ,all the best stu
I was fascinated by the Balkan aspect of the book, the bits about the changes and atmosphere of ‘it wont come here’ and then the disappearances was brilliant. I would have liked a lot more of that I have to say.
I started reading this a few days ago and it won the prize while I was a third of the way through! I am very impressed with what I have read so far, so hopefully I will be able to finish it this weekend.
I saw your thoughts Graham and it seemed that we were rather aligned on it as a piece of fiction and a debut novel.
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Hype usually puts me off a book but I must confess I do fancy this one, particularly after listening to her reading a portion of the book on the Guardian podcasts… sounds like a funny one…perhaps something you have to be in the mood for? The whole slightly fragmented/obscure thing puts me in mind of some Latin American magical-realism novels which I can love, IF I’m in the mood and can get my head around them that is…
Yes its interesting you mention the Guardian podcast, I listened to that and found myself wanting to return to the book, how strange. I won’t sadly, I will read whatever she writes next though, no question.
Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood when I read it but it really didn’t engage me at all. I can appreciate how well written and how well crafted it was but I struggled to finish it.
I am amazed how many people have said they struggled to get to the end, this is a book though that the judges will have read at least three times, or should have if they are doing it properly. Maybe thats the key though, the re-reading.
I’ve not read this yet; but I was a little disappointed that ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ didn’t make it to the shortlist, if only because it’s a good example of non-conventioanl fiction that would have been healthy to include, methinks.
Also, Tea Obreht is so young it depresses me.
It is indeed sickening how young she is Tomcat, there is no mistake in that. Its not my jealousy that made me wary of the book though I promise.
I get what you mean about the non conventional with A Visit From The Good Squad and how it would have been good to push that aspect. I didnt like that book at all though so was glad it didnt in the end, sorry.
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Have obviously heard and read an awful lot about this book recently and I can’t quite decide whether it appeals or not. I think I will probably read it but have similar reservations to you.
I’ve only read one book from the 2011 Orange shortlist so I can’t really answer which I think “should” have won, but it was a particularly appealing list this year so maybe I can answer that in a few months’ time.
I think the shortlist for The Orange Prize this year was incredible. In fact I would go as far as to say that it was one of this prizess strongest.
I am struggling through it for book club but losing the will to live with it. Will only be relieved when finished it.