Citizen Reviews: The Tiger’s Wife

We continue our occasional series of customer reviews with Ben Paulson’s impressions of the debut novelist from the youngest author on last year’s “20 under 40” list from The New Yorker.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
It’s difficult to find a synonym for the word nice that doesn’t sound in some way backhanded. The term itself is probably exactly what I’m looking for, but it carries with it a certain patronizing air, perhaps an unspoken accusation of quaintness and, if nothing else, it suggests a definite lack of effusion. Nonetheless, it seems the pitch perfect word to describe Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, because its restraint aptly reflects that of Obreht’s writing. You see, The Tiger’s Wife may be wonderfully composed, confidently coy, and, at times, entrancing. But effusive it is not.

In The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht offers us the story of Natalia, a young doctor from a war-eroded Balkan country, travelling across a neighboring border to deliver medical aid to an orphanage. En route, she learns that her beloved grandfather has died in a clinic inexplicably far from their home. The novel that unfolds is Natalia’s quest to understand the mysteries surrounding his death. This investigation begins literally but, over time, it shifts into something slightly more existential, as Natalia begins to examine and retell the stories that her grandfather has passed on to her. The first of these stories describes an escaped tiger that haunted the pastoral village of his childhood. The second recurrent tale is of the “deathless man,” an unwillingly immortal man whose life intersects her grandfather’s from time to time. It’s this strange mix of traumatic reality and magical realism that gives The Tiger’s Wife its strength. Obreht embeds this ethereal world of mythology into a contemporary backdrop of conflict and loss. She does so with such unflinching simplicity and deliberate pacing that the novel’s oscillations between dreamlike folklore and lyrical truth quickly blur into a charming and surreal meditation on the nature of mourning and mortality; on truth and myth; on the nature of storytelling itself.

In The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht has given us an eloquent novel that is as charming as it is quietly confident. Delving into the patchwork narrative of this novel is a pleasure, and the world of The Tiger’s Wife, is at once strange, captivating and resonant. Which brings me back to my point: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht may be a nice book; but it is a really, really nice book. Please pick up this novel and read it. Do something nice for yourself.

Ben Paulson lives in St. Paul, where he obsesses about books, zombies and breakfasts.