Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht

The problem with getting in line to put a book on hold at the library is that by the time it's your turn to read it, you may not be in the mood anymore. It's particularly dangerous for books outside your usual genre, and I don't read literary fiction very often.

So it took me a while to get into The Tiger's Wife*. It's the story of a woman coming to terms with her grandfather's death, reflecting on stories about his life. The stories alternate, though: there's a thread in which the narrator is talking about what happened when she found out about his death; another in which she tells the stories her grandfather told her about the deathless man; and a third in which she tells a story about her grandfather's childhood that she never learned until after his death - the one about the tiger's wife. It took me a while to piece together how they all fit together; I liked it, when I finally got used to the flow and figured out what was going on.

There's a strong element of story-mutation going on. The narrator is often talking about how a certain person tells part of the story a certain (possibly inaccurate) way, or about the lies one family member told another to cover up a truth that would have worried them, or about a superstitious myth that the villagers built themselves to explain something outside their everyday experiences. At some point, I started to wonder how the narrator knew some of the things she was relating - lyrical tales about private conversations between two people who died without telling these stories, or about events whose witnesses only ever lied about what happened. It bugged me, until I decided that it must be on purpose: although she presents herself as rational and non-superstitious, all along the narrator is building herself a myth about her grandfather's life. Literal truth takes second place to her assembly of a coherent, romantic story of his life.

* Hipster Librariminion sez: I cataloged this book for the library when it was just an M.F.A. thesis! If you're interested in such scholarly differences as may exist between that and the published book, there it is. You're welcome. I was tempted to check out that copy, actually - it was available immediately. But it's an 8x11 hardback - definitely not one-hand-readable.

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