05 September 2011

The hype bites back

I spent the first third, at least, of THE TIGER'S WIFE trying to figure out what it was "about." What author Téa Obreht was "up to." I wish I could have that time back, because while I was trying to determine whether I was being outfoxed I could have been enjoying myself a lot more. At some point I succumbed to the book's spell (as cheesy as it is: this happened) and I was a lot happier, deeper into the story and more mystified (in a good way) thereafter.

Let me start by saying if it assuages your fears, that there is a literal tiger in this book (though not in the present), it is not imaginary and it enacts real damage. (Now I'm thinking about CHRONIC CITY again. I should probably write Jonathan Lethem an apology one of these days.) The tiger figures into the stories Natalia, a 20something doctor in an unnamed Balkan city in the former Yugoslavia, was told as a child by her grandfather. Grandfather, who has just died on a trip out of town, was also a doctor and he and Natalia were very close, so she knows what the family doesn't -- that he was sneaking around to conceal his cancer and treatments from his wife -- but she doesn't know what he was doing out of town on the day of his death. Preparing to cross the border on a humanitarian mission to vaccinate orphans, Natalia hopes to find out while she's out there what her grandfather was doing out there just before he died, even if she can't tell anyone.

If I had to describe this book as being "about" anything, it's "about" a small Balkan town in which the narrator's grandfather grew up, and the tiger that menaces it one winter, and how they deal with that.  The narrator's grandfather tells her this story at some indeterminately young age, and she retells it to us intercut with her present-day trip and the confrontations she has with locals there. So in a bigger sense, it's "about" what the stories we tell and are told say about us, and the extent to which we look to them to shape our lives, which turns out to be quite a lot in this case. When I write that, it just sounds so hokey, but this book is full of mysteries; it's a fair amount like that other book by that other wunderkind, Jonathan Safran Foer's EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, in that respect. (But no Alex! Which is too bad because he's a premium dancer and all the girls want to be carnal with him.)

Obreht is able to bring across the kinship Natalia feels for her grandfather, the void his absence creates in her, without making either of them perfect; stemming from her remorse over his death is the fact that they weren't very close for most of the war, nor was Natalia involved in the war itself, being mostly concerned with going out with her fellow students. Her humanitarian trip is a way of making amends (to her view), an effort not universally welcomed.

THE TIGER'S WIFE received such elaborate praise as that casts suspicion over the book industry as a whole, but any author placed on the New Yorker 20 under 40 list before having a book come out would. I can't say definitively whether she "deserves" to be on this list as there are, oh, hundreds of thousands of writers who would fall into that age group, and I can't have read any significant share of them. I will be eagerly anticipating her next book, which I will probably fight again for the narrative it's trying to spin, only maybe next time I will surrender sooner.

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