The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht reads like a piece of allegorical art. It is a literary creation to be savored, debated, enjoyed, and interpreted differently by each person who experiences its mysterious creativity.

Set entirely in the war-torn Balkans, this newly-published novel begins with the voice of four-year-old Natalia as she describes her weekly trip to the zoo with her physician grandfather to visit the captivating tigers. While spending time together, her grandfather reads his beloved copy of The Jungle Book to her and tells her incredible stories filled with Slavic folklore and superstition. 

Eventually Natalia grows up and becomes a doctor herself. While she is away on a mercy mission to inoculate children at a distant orphanage, her grandfather dies alone under odd circumstances in a strange town. Natalia is puzzled by his actions and feels compelled to seek truth and understanding about his death. Slowly and with determination, she begins piecing together the details of her grandfather’s last days, but in doing so, she also puts together the pieces of his life and discovers a new understanding of who her grandfather really was as a man.

Natalia begins her symbolic journey by realizing that the childhood stories told by her grandfather were true parts of his own life and filled with dark Slavic customs and fears. She imagines his authoritative voice telling of his encounters with Gavron Gailé, the deathless man who could not die himself but who always correctly predicted the deaths of others. She also recalls the story of Luka, the butcher’s son who ran away to live the life of a respected musician. 

Natalia knows all these fantastical stories must somehow fit together and play a role in resolving her grandfather’s strange actions before his death, but nothing seems cohesive until Natalia learns the story of the tiger’s wife, the tale her grandfather didn’t tell her, and the one story that seemed to haunt him for life.

For a first novel, The Tiger’s Wife is impressive. Obreht’s lyrical use of language and her realistic narratives capture readers from the beginning. However, the book is not without flaws. At times, the plot moves a little slowly, and it takes several chapters before you really begin to understand where the story is taking you. 

Natalia’s current-day portions of the novel also don’t grab readers’ imaginations and emotions on the same level as the grandfather’s stories. This slight gap in cohesion between Natalia’s modern-day life and her grandfather’s mysterious history make The Tiger’s Wife feel slightly pieced together, more like different story blocks were laid out and then sewn together as one rather than being woven together into one fabric from the beginning. 

If you are a reader who likes a quick read with easy answers and no baggage, this is not the book for you. The Tiger’s Wife is unusual, sometimes uncomfortable, filled with as many questions as answers, and deals heavily with the theme of death.    

But also know that Obreht actually wrote The Tiger’s Wife, her first novel,while mourning her own grandfather’s death. This personal grief permeates the pages of the book and fills it with an honest vulnerability and sadness that takes readers to another level.   

Obreht now lives in New York and has begun work on her second novel. She was born in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and spent time in Cyprus and Egypt before coming to the United States when she was 12. 

Before releasing The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht was published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s.  The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best American fiction writers under forty, and she is also included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 under 35. 

If you’ve had a chance to read The Tiger’s Wife, what were your likes and dislikes about the book?  Did you have a favorite section or story?  Would you recommend this novel to others – why or why not?

About the Author

Amy Morris

Amy Morris is a librarian technical assistant at the Westport Branch. She earned a B.A. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from Avila University. Besides reading and writing, Amy enjoys traveling, art, being creative, and spending time with her family.