Reading on a packed commuter train is never easy, especially if your book is rammed to your face or soaking up the sweat of some man's armpit, but with a good book it is more endurable. The best books help you transcend the very worst of environments. Overground, I am over you!


And so 'The Tiger's Wife' is such a book to transport you to better places. Part fable, part memoir, part historical realism, it weaves a magical tapestry. Set in the Balkans, with its narrative spanning over a century, the 'Tiger's Wife' is a Russian doll of complexity and folklore.  The writing is beautiful and sews the threads of the patchwork narrative into something enchanting. Tea Obreht is alive with stories and this permeates the fabric of the page. For this reason, I was frustrated to discover that she was born a year after me, with such a book already to her name and the Orange Prize for Fiction in her hands! One can only hope...


Natalia is a doctor on a mission to help orphans devastated by another war in the region. While on her way to the small town of Brejevina, she learns of her grandfather's death, prompting memories of him and his uncanny stories. Also a doctor, Natalia's grandfather had many stories to tell, notably how, when he was a child, a tiger escaped a bombed out zoo and found its way to his remote village of Galina. Another story he tells is of the Deathless Man, who mysteriously turns up every so often throughout his life, with a ridiculous wager and an incredible talent. 


The narrative of 'The Tiger's Wife' therefore sweeps from Natalia's grandfather's childhood to his time as a doctor to Natalia's present day. But it is not so simple: each time period is soaked in its own folklore, its own gossip and fables. Ultimately this draws you into other times and into other peoples's lives. Not only do we learn about Natalia's grandfather, but we also learn about Luka the butcher, Darisa the Bear, Marko Parovic the apothecary and, of course, the tiger's wife. These characters have their own back stories, derived mostly from hearsay and speculation, creating a feeling that we are listening to a village nattering away at itself, unsure what is real and what is fantasy. In some ways it feels like many short stories sewn magically together. And this is the novel's appeal. 


Is it magic realism? Perhaps not. While there are definite parallels with, say, 'A Hundred Years of Solitude', 'The Tiger's Wife' is more a meditation on storytelling itself. Stories are human, transmitted orally, across generations. Even if the tapestry is a little faded, somehow the colours shine through,  


This was a great read to start the year off. Let's hope the next one can save me from the fate of armpits too...

© 2020 by Chris Soul. 

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