Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why I Should Hate Tea Obreht

January Magazine has posted my review of The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht.  To say that I liked the book is like saying "sipping chilled wine and eating French pastries while floating on a raft in a swimming pool on a butter-warm day under robin's-egg-blue skies as your poolside wife reads The Wall Street Journal aloud, reciting the rising numbers of your stocks, while on the other side of the lawn the members of the London Philharmonic you've hired for the day play your favorite Strauss waltz" is just an "okay experience."

Yes, I loved The Tiger's Wife.

It might just be the most finely-crafted novel I've ever read.  Ever.

My review at January Magazine begins:
       As a writer, I should hate Téa Obreht. She’s 25, earned a coveted spot on The New Yorker’s bally-hooed “20 Under 40” list of hot young writers, and has been published in The Atlantic, Harper’s, and Zoetrope: All-Story--all in the time that most of us are still learning how to form coherent sentences. What’s more, she can write circles around me in her sleep. I should hate her, but it’s impossible not to love what she has delivered in The Tiger’s Wife, an impressive novel by any standards--no matter the age or career-longevity of the author.
       Non-writer readers, those who are blithely ignorant of the hard work of carving words from recalcitrant language and sculpting them into something as poised and confident as Obreht’s debut, will just appreciate the novel for what it’s meant to be: damned fine storytelling.
       It is told with such confidence and mastery of the novel’s form that it belies the age of its creator.
       If I handed you a copy of The Tiger’s Wife without telling you any backstory about the author, and I snipped out Obreht’s photo from the flap jacket, and rubbed out her biography with a black magic marker, you would read the book and hand it back to me swearing that the person who wrote this astounding narrative was a seasoned veteran--someone on the prolific, talented level of Joyce Carol Oates or William Trevor or Charles Baxter--and then your mouth would predictably fall open in disbelief when I shared the truth.
       The Tiger’s Wife is a good case study in that age-old debate about separating the artist from the artwork (i.e., Can we appreciate John Cheever’s short fiction for what it is, setting aside his behavior as a father and husband? Or, once upon a time, could we still groove to Michael Jackson’s music and ignore the rumors coming from Neverland?). Given all the marketing noise buzzing around Téa Obreht (and I know I’m a loud contributor to that very huzzah), it’s important to stop our ears and focus on the contents of the page.
[Click here to read the full review....]

I make it a habit to pull quotes from whatever book I'm reviewing in order to give the reader a better feel for what's in store for them.  When it came to writing about The Tiger's Wife for January Magazine, that task was especially difficult because there were so many passages full of beautiful, evocative imagery and compelling stories-within-stories that I had a hard time choosing among them.

At the blog, I don't have as many of those restraints; so, if you'll indulge me, here is one of my favorite parts of the book, told in three separate, consecutive chunks:
        Having sifted through everything I now know about the tiger’s wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in 1941, in late spring, without declaration or warning, German bombs started falling on the city and did not stop for three days.
       The tiger did not know that they were bombs. He did not know anything beyond the hiss and screech of the fighters passing overhead, missiles falling, the sound of bears bellowing in another part of the fortress, the sudden silence of birds. There was smoke and terrible warmth, a gray sun rising and falling in what seemed like a matter of minutes, and the tiger, frenzied, dry-tongued, ran back and forth across the span of the rusted bars, lowing like an ox. He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss nor succumb to. He did not know what to do with it. His water had dried up, and he rolled and rolled in the stone bed of his trough, in the uneaten bones lying in a corner of the cage, making that long sad sound that tigers make.
       After two days of pacing, his legs gave out, and he was reduced to a contraction of limbs lying in his own waste. He had lost the ability to move, to produce sound, to react in any way. When a stray bomb hit the south wall of the citadel—sending up a choking cloud of smoke and ash and shattering bits of rubble into the skin of his head and flank, bits that would gnaw at his flesh for weeks until he got used to the grainy ache of them when he rolled onto his side or scratched himself against trees—his heart should have stopped. The iridescent air and the feeling of his fur folding back like paper in the heat, and then the long hours during which he crouched at the back of his pen, watching the ruptured flank of the citadel wall. All of these things should have killed him. But something, some flickering of the blood, forced him to his feet and through the gap in the wall. The strength of that drive.
       (He was not the only one: years later they would write about wolves running down the street, a polar bear standing in the river. They would write about how flights of parrots were seen for weeks above the city, how a prominent engineer and his family lived an entire month off a zebra carcass.)
       The tiger spent the rest of the night in the graveyard and left the city at dawn. He did not go by unobserved. He was seen first by the grave digger, a man who was almost blind, and who did not trust his eyes to tell him that a tiger, braced on its hind legs, was rummaging through the churchyard garbage heap, mouthing thistles in the early morning sunlight. He was seen next by a small girl, riding in the back of her family’s wagon, who noticed him between the trees and thought he was a dream. He was noticed, too, by the city’s tank commander, who would go on to shoot himself three days later, and who mentioned the tiger in his last letter to his betrothed—I have never seen so strange a thing as a tiger in a wheat field, he wrote, even though, today, I pulled a woman’s black breasts and stomach out of the pond at the Convent of Sveta Maria. The last person to see the tiger was a farmer on a small plot of land two miles south of the city, who was burying his son in the garden, and who threw rocks when the tiger got too close.

       One morning, in the grip of an early frost, he came across a boar. Brown and bloated, the hog was distracted with acorns, and for the first time in his life, the tiger gave chase. It was loud and poorly calculated. He came on with his head up and his breath blaring like a foghorn, and the hog, without even turning to look at its pursuer, disappeared into the autumn brush.
       The tiger did not succeed, but it was something, at least. He had been born in a box of hay in a gypsy circus, and had spent his life feeding on fat white columns of spine in the citadel cage. For the first time, the impulse that made him flex his claws in sleep, the compulsion that led him to drag his meat to the corner of the cage he occupied alone, was articulated into something other than frustration. Necessity drew him slowly out of his domesticated clumsiness. It strengthened and reinforced the building blocks of his nature, honed his languid, feline reflexes; and the long-lost Siberian instinct pulled him north, into the cold.


  1. Just finished Tigers Wife. I totally get where you're coming from :)

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  2. I loved this book -- astonished at how mature an author she is. This is my favorite passage, coming toward the end of the novel: "But now, in the country's last hour it was clear to him, as it was to me, that the cease-fire had provided the delusion of normalcy, but never peace. When your fight has purpose -- to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent--it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling -- when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event -- there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it."