Not for Grown-ups: 'The Tiger's Wife' by Tea Obreht

tea obreht credit beowulf sheehan Not for Grown ups: 'The Tiger's Wife' by Tea ObrehtA young-adult novel is like porn: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Deep in the oddly innocent pages of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Random House, 352 pages, $25), I found myself wondering why it all felt so familiar. The heroine’s succession of clear-cut quests, her earnest determination to seek the truth, her blandly appealing intelligence-how did I know them, why did I feel I’d read them before? And then I placed it. Oh, I thought, this is a chapter book.

Ms. Obreht was the youngest of The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40.” When the magazine’s list of the best young fiction writers came out last summer, she was 24, and had not yet published a book. Having lived through war in her native Yugoslavia, she knows more of the world’s woes than her English-major peers. Experience beyond postcollegiate ennui may explain why she resists the young novelist’s impulse to blow readers’ minds by contriving adult situations or performing formal hijinks. Witnessing armed conflict imparts a becoming sense of modesty.

But Ms. Obreht has stumbled upon a different hazard of precocity. She writes like she’s trying to please the grown-ups, and in so doing produces the good student’s notion of what constitutes a good book. The Tiger’s Wife reads like it belongs in the running for a Newberry rather than a Pulitzer.

The novel is built around uncomplicated family love and a healthy dose of serious history. Natalia, a young doctor in a Balkan country, is delivering vaccines to an orphanage when she learns that her grandfather has died. A doctor as well, he hid his serious illness from all but Natalia-and his death in a remote village becomes all the more baffling when the local hospital returns his body missing all of his belongings. Natalia sets off to discover what happened and comes to suspect her grandfather had an encounter with a mysterious figure she knows only from his stories of a “deathless man.” In chapters interwoven with Natalia’s journey, we meet the deathless man as well as the “tiger’s wife.”

Dogs and ponies are chapter-book stalwarts, and wise readers would do well to gird themselves for emotionally fraught fauna. There is the tiger, of course, a semi-domesticated zoo escapee who enchants the grandfather in his boyhood. There’s a pet dog who inspires a houseful of paintings, a parrot who “likes to recite poetry” and a dancing bear who winds up lovingly taxidermied. The city zoo is Natalia’s temple, and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is her scripture. It’s the source of her grandfather’s tiger fascination, and the object of his bet with the deathless man-the thing she most hopes to recover among the belongings lost when he died.

Almost as much as they love animals, plucky protagonists have always liked reading, and the novel reflects a kid bookworm’s fascination with storytelling in all its forms-lies and legends and literature. Whether it’s the wise grandfather with his tattered Kipling or rural nomads with their grimly superstitious chants, this is a world that values words.

Stories about stories, of course, are hardly limited to the children’s shelf at the bookstore. But the action in The Tiger’s Wife depends on a childlike sense that belief in the unbelievable is heroic and that secrets are sacred. The combination means that Ms. Obreht’s adult characters have an inexplicable taste for subterfuge. Natalia takes a break from work to look after her dead grandfather’s affairs: A grown-up might explain this to her colleagues. Instead, Natalia drums up an alibi and sets off in secret. Why? It’s not like she’s running around her boarding school after curfew. She’s just spunky.

And while The Jungle Book is Ms. Obreht’s Kipling of choice, Just-So Stories might be a more convenient comparison for the tidy interludes of character development she tends to provide her supporting players. Like: “Why the Butcher Beats His Wife.” Or: “How the Bear Hunter Came to Terms With Killing.”

Natalia’s portions of the story dissolve in her own dullness. The folk tales are more engaging, but they bear an unfortunate whiff of Yore. They involve sentences like “Mother Vera’s people had always been shepherds.”

Reading The Tiger’s Wife, I began to consider the things that attracted me to books when I myself was a young-adult (i.e., late elementary school) reader. Basically, I was a nerdy lowbrow: I was in it for sex, humor and death. If a book wasn’t going to give me the scoop on puberty or throw me some puns, I wanted it to scare me in a way that felt serious and adult-perhaps with the Holocaust, or cancer.

I no longer demand the hard-won dirty bits or Phantom Tollbooth yuks I required as a 10-year-old. But I still find authors who totally lack interest in both sex (I use this broadly: desire) and humor (whether verbal play or social satire or a sense of absurdity) to be somewhat suspicious. Middlemarch-a book “for grown-up people,” according to Virginia Woolf-is both achy with the discomforts of desire and very, very funny. Ms. Obreht’s chaste, solemn, schoolgirl prose is not for grown-up people.

She delegates perfunctory responsibility for lust and jokes to Zora, Natalia’s cool-girl best friend, who attracts comic leering and says things a bit too spicy for a mild-mannered protagonist. For example: “At the age of thirteen, a priest had told her that animals had no souls, and she had said, ‘Well then, fuck you, pops,’ and walked out of the church.” Of course it’s the animals.

As for death, Ms. Obreht mostly reduces it to spookiness. There’s a campfire quality to the story of the deathless man, with his ever echoing demands, his fortune-telling coffee cup, his reliably surprising visits.

Only in one of his final appearances does the deathless man transcend this. He and the grandfather share antebellum dinner in an abandoned hotel, and Ms. Obreht plays the scene masterfully: the dreamlike sense of ghostliness, the premature mourning for a way of life lost to war, the frantic embrace of pleasure before mortality. It’s as if, suddenly, the narrator has stopped seeming childlike and instead become very old. 

This elderly voice proves more appealing than when Ms. Obreht sounds like she’s writing for 11-year-olds. But as a 24-year-old, maybe she could have written a book that had something to do with being 24.

editorial@observer.com

Comments

  1. krom says:

    Yes and no. I think it’s a shallow critique to say she’s writing to try to impress the grown-ups, (and a condescending, maybe bitter one, considering she’s only 25). The tale is lacking in irony & sex, sure, but Tea’s intricate plotting and unique eye for details are the book’s saving grace. The narrative web was artful, to say the least. And the details!
    All the animal affection was a bit cutesy, and so were the bookworm characters, maybe. But to say this book isn’t for grownups (and righteously referencing Virginia Woolf) is a weak stance to pin a piece of criticism upon, especially since Tiger’s Wife would be quite untouched in the YA section. It’s one of the more intelligent pieces of literature out this year.

  2. James M. Frase-White says:

    It has it’s charm.  There is no age limit on books . . . and this is a first book.  The tales still work on the imagination, and weave an engaging story, with hints of the tearing of the mere fabric of society.  I found myself thinking about matters larger than the story; possibly the innocence that Obreht reveals, in herself and in her fable are why the book has captured the imagination of us.  The market for 24 year olds in this country seems wrapped around money and sex, with little concerns of the matters approached by Ms. Obreht.  Remember to read, no matter for what audience, for the beauty and strength of the prose, and in all, for the truth in the content.  I quite enjoyed the Tiger’s Wife, even with the blemishes and dissatifactions.  I look forward to seeing what this young author produces next.

  3. JoeyJo says:

    Ms. Fischer writes like a petulant teen. With her trying to be oh so clever references and haughty and unnecessary claims of being above young adult literature before early adolescence, it must be one of the greatest injustices in the history of the world that she herself is not on a top 20 under 40 list! The sloppy journalism (Oberht did not live in Yugoslavia during the war) and caustic criticism makes me think that Fischer should go back to writing pathetic blog posts about her privileged existence or read some young adult literature in the hopes of actually growing up before she’s 30. I expected better from the New York Observer. This ninny must have got the gig through nepotism. Oh, and while the book was not flawless, The Tiger’s Wife is definitely worth reading.

  4. cs says:

    Obreht didn’t live through the recent Balkan war as you state above, however she certainly has absorbed what adds to creating war in a country like the former Yugoslavia where so many strains of old cultures meet. It’s unfortunate that you dismiss her writing so. I suspect it may be a bit of jealousy–her prodigious talent and this novel are something to be greatly admired.

  5. Mark Hammond says:

    I heard a great interview on the radio show” the book report” with Tea being interviewed by Elaine Charles. I am really looking forward to reading this book.

  6. Peebycartoons says:

    IF YOU LIKED THIS BOOK, READ “RIDE THE TIGER”

  7. Dan U. says:

    I am not going to attack you rabidly like one of the other commentators, but I must say you have left me scratching my head — figuratively speaking, since I am a compulsive nail-biter. Let me explain why (and please excuse my obsessive use of parentheticals).

    First of all, an author has very little control over how their book is marketed. That this book was sold to an adult market and then submitted for “adult” awards was up to the publisher. That she was short-listed for the National Book Award and was given the Orange Prize was also not up to the author, though I’m sure warmly received. While awards are not always a wholly valid indicator of the awarded book’s value, these awards are not blindly thrown out and they are given by adults, so perhaps there is something to it. Or perhaps you are rolling your eyes and saying, “That’s what they WANT you to think!”

    Second of all, it is highly condescending and (I’m having trouble finding a better way of saying it) just kind of stupid to suggest that a 24-year-old has to be/speak/think/write a certain way. Since I have only just begun to read this book, I cannot speak to its sexual content except to ask, do you really think it would have been a BETTER book if there had been more overt sexuality? Or are you merely suggesting it would strike you as more TRUE? (By that I mean true to your expectation of the concerns of a 24-year-old woman.) You say that the heroine’s lack of sexuality made you “suspicious,” which I actually read as “uncomfortable,” but then I might just be reading between the lines… speaking of which, is it possible that Ms. Obreht knows something about subtlety and that perhaps you have missed something clandestinely sexual while waiting for her to explore her body or suddenly turn into a man like Orlando (…since we’re obviously just throwing around Virginia Woolf references)? Like I said, I don’t actually know because I have not finished the book, but I think it would be worth looking into.

    After all this, I wonder: If this book HAD been marketed to 11-year-olds, how would you feel then? Because it seems your problems are largely about the place where expectation meets (or does not meet) reality. I personally find Obreht’s writing to be lovely in an unobtrusive kind of way. I have found myself captivated not only by the story she is telling but by the ways she reveals details and the way she lingers on some longer than others. I should note that I do, even after only 50 pages, sense a pulling away from the sexual, but that does not denote to me a lack of interest in sex, nor does it seem un-adult. I think the Buddha might even consider it transcendent, but since I’m not the Buddha I can say no more on the subject.

    As to the complaints from other commentators regarding her representation of Yugoslavia, I suggest that you take a moment to realize that the country she writes about in this book does not exist in the real world. What she creates is a purposefully vague folktale-esque setting: Once upon a time, there was a country in the Balkans where a war had taken place…. You draw from your own understanding of the wars there while accepting as fiction anything that is not real. And then please separate in your mind what is REAL from what is TRUE, because the two are not the same.

    Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that your criticism of this book is not valid (once again I repeat that I have not finished the book and may come to agree with you later), but that it doesn’t seem particularly valuable. By valuable, of course, I mean “able to be valued.” I am not able to value it because it does not deepen my understanding of the story in question or the craft of writing. Telling me that a book was incorrectly marketed is not at all helpful. Telling me that 24-year-old women think about sex and, because of this, it should have been in Ms. Obreht’s book is not at all helpful. What may be helpful is your mention of her treatment of death (Now THAT is an example of something to discuss in a good work of criticism), but somehow I feel your evaluation probably gave her short shrift.

    Anyway, I hope that my criticism has been helpful to you.