“In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone
and he takes me to see the tigers.”
The Tiger’s Wife
When I was twenty-five I knew that the world was round. I could make a pie crust from scratch, balance a checkbook and give a dog a pill without assistance. I was confident, self-assured, and oblivious. Rather than the more empathetic world of grey in which I live today, I ran around in a black and white land where my unseasoned ideas wrapped themselves comfortably round a framework enfeebled by lack of experience. When I was twenty-five, any wisdom afforded me by my childhood years was still simmering on the back burner of my life. It would not fully nourish my days till at least another ten years or so. Contrast my narrative with that of twenty-five year old Tea Obreht. She has just published her first novel to rave reviews, which is not in and of itself such an unusual thing for someone that age. What is, in my opinion, both unusual and unexpected, is that this novel is not only lyrical, but full of the sort of wisdom usually reserved for a writer much further along on the journey through life.
The Tiger’s Wife has been compared to the work of both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Michael Ondaatje, and that is not bad company to keep. I can certainly see the resemblance, but in spite of her youth, or perhaps because of it, Ms. Obreht has harnessed an unique voice that is utterly her own. Set somewhere in the Balkans against a backdrop of war, The Tiger’s Wife gathers up the threads of fable and folklore, allegory and realism, and entwines them into a tapestry where their colours circle seamlessly from myth into truth, weaving the two together so tightly it is soon evident that the whole cloth of history cannot exist without both.
There are moments in this book so beautiful they practically beseech the reader to read them several times over before continuing on. Follow an old man and his grand-daughter through the vacant midnight streets of a city at war to witness an extraordinary sight. (I won’t divulge what they see here, to preserve the delight for those yet to read it.) When the grand-daughter exclaims that “none of her friends will ever believe this”, she hears this in response,
“You must be joking,” her grandfather replies, rebuking her: “The story of this war — dates, names, who started it, why — that belongs to everyone. Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before. But something like this — this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. . . . You have to think carefully about where you tell it, and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?”
I know exactly what he means. There are some sights so extraordinary that you feel the need to hold them close, to keep their magic tight in your heart till it becomes part of the very breath of your spirit, altering your perspective and enhancing your days. I thought about holding The Tiger’s Wife close just like this, turning its magical stories over and over like a piece of shiny sea glass brought home from an empty beach.
But I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.
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