The best thing about the TV series, LOST, was that it used flashbacks and moments in the characters history to convey not only a sense of drama, but one of story. People decided to watch each week in the vain hope that more details would be revealed. But this was achieved via great writing, writing that dragged people to the water cooler the next day because they were desperate for new information. One has to ask that if LOST had foregone the present day details and only shown the island in brief glimpses, would the show had been half as popular.
Why is this relevant to The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht? Much of The Tiger’s Wife is told in the form of a story delivered by one of the central characters. Natalia, a doctor on a humanitarian effort to inoculate orphans is telling the life of her Grandfather who has just passed. We see several stories in the novel; there is the story of Natalia and the world of superstition and folklore that surrounds her in the modern world. Then we have her tale of her Grandfather when he was a child in the town of Galina, which contains the titular premise of the Tiger’s wife and finally we see flashbacks to her Grandfather in his young adult life and his interactions with The Deathless Man.
There’s a lot going on in the book and much of it floats nicely in a sea of glorious prose. But that’s all it really does. Never does it burst through the surface and grab you by the ears pulling your face further in. In fact for much of the second half, The Tiger’s Wife leaves you wondering where the editor was when Tea handed in her manuscript.
The novel is the epitome of literary fiction, to the point of being over written. The central plotlines that run throughout are genuinely interesting but each leaves the reader wondering which is ultimately the reason to read. Personally I adored every page that featured The Deathless Man. His presence as a being that cannot die and travels the land telling people if they are going to die or not, is captivating.
The reason for the comparisons to LOST is that it was enjoyable for the way it dealt with the stories on show, there was very little in the way of filler. Practically every detail was prevalent to the overarching stories. This is certainly not the case with The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht spends far too many pages delivering back story to characters that seem unimportant and often leaves you wondering why you must read through fifteen pages of history for miniscule characters.
There is never a concentration on a firm story. I’m all for books that make me think outside of the box and attempt to leave me with a sense of questioning, but the final third of the book left me feeling empty. There was no question other than where the story that so enticed me on the book’s jacket had gone.
It is a beautiful book to read, Obreht uses the English language marvellously to deliver a war torn world of Yugoslavia and this is of course the backdrop for the novel. Through Obreht’s details of war she creates a sense of foreboding that boosts the fables, myths and superstitions of the sideline stories. My biggest bug bear is that the book never breaks out of the “pretention” of literary fiction to tell a great story.
There are flashes of true genius, moments that if explored could have become moments in a book remembered forever. Had Obreht delivered her passions with a solid story taking the front seat, then the book would not only have been enjoyed by myself, but recommended to everyone I meet. Sadly I was left wanting too much by the last page and never felt satisfied while I read.