The Tiger's Wife

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Overview

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Wall Street Journal • O: The Oprah Magazine • The Economist • Vogue • Slate • Chicago Tribune • The Seattle Times • Dayton Daily News • Publishers Weekly • Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered
 
SELECTED ONE OF THE TOP 10 BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times • Entertainment Weekly • The Christian Science Monitor • The Kansas City Star • Library Journal

In a Balkan country mending from war, Natalia, a young doctor, is compelled to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. Searching for clues, she turns to his worn copy of The Jungle Book and the stories he told her of his encounters over the years with “the deathless man.” But most extraordinary of all is the story her grandfather never told her—the legend of the tiger’s wife.

Look for special features inside. Join the Circle for author chats and more.

Finalist for the 2011 National Book Award in Fiction

Winner of the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction

One of the New York Times Book Review's Top 10 Books of 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Set in an unnamed Balkan country, this National Book Award finalist has won praise for its "magical-realist evocation of a country in wartime" and its' "dizzyingly nuanced, yet crisp, muscularly written narrative." Widely acclaimed in hardcover; now a trade paperback and NOOK Book.

Ron Charles
Tea Obreht's swirling first novel…draws us beneath the clotted tragedies in the Balkans to deliver the kind of truth that histories can't touch. Born in Belgrade in 1985…she captures the thirst for consecration that a century of war has left in that bloody part of the world. It's a novel of enormous ambitions that manages in its modest length to contain the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, Turks and Ottomans, science and superstition.
—The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
Ms. Obreht…writes with remarkable authority and eloquence, and she demonstrates an uncommon ability to move seamlessly between the gritty realm of the real and the more primary-colored world of the fable. It's not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez or Günter Grass as it is an extraordinarily limber exploration of allegory and myth making and the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs or supernatural legends) reveal—and reflect back—the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies and hatreds…Ms. Obreht has not only made a precocious debut, but she has also written a richly textured and searing novel.
—The New York Times
Liesl Schillinger
…Obreht juxtaposes Natalia's matter-of-fact narration with contemporary folk tales that are as simple, enthralling and sometimes brutal as fables by Kipling or Dinesen…she did not live in the former Yugoslavia during the war-torn years this book revisits. Filled with astonishing immediacy and presence, fleshed out with detail that seems firsthand, The Tiger's Wife is all the more remarkable for being the product not of observation but of imagination. For Obreht, the mind's witness is more than equal to the eye's. And her narrator, in retelling the experiences of her grandfather's generation, enfolds them into her own. As his vision joins hers, old and new memories collide in a vibrant collage that has no date, no dateline.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publishers Weekly Audio
Obreht, named last year as one of the New Yorker's 20 novelists to watch under the age of 40, makes her debut with this magical-realist evocation of a country in wartime. The author, herself an immigrant to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia, transforms a young woman's memories of her grandfather's stories into a kaleidoscopic portrait of her former country's traumatic history. The book is read in tag-team fashion by Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs. Sachs sounds gravelly, grouchy, and well-pickled in various alcoholic libations; Duerden is British, plummy, arch, and delicate in her intonations, reverberating into near-Cockney working-class tone. The unlikely combination is surprisingly pleasing, nicely matching the contrast between Obreht's elaborate storytelling conceit and its grubby, homely details. A Random hardcover. (Mar.)
Publishers Weekly
The sometimes crushing power of myth, story, and memory is explored in the brilliant debut of Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker's 20-under-40. Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor living (and, in between suspensions, practicing) in an unnamed country that's a ringer for Obreht's native Croatia, crosses the border in search of answers about the death of her beloved grandfather, who raised her on tales from the village he grew up in, and where, following German bombardment in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo in a nearby city and befriended a mysterious deaf-mute woman. The evolving story of the tiger's wife, as the deaf-mute becomes known, forms one of three strands that sustain the novel, the other two being Natalia's efforts to care for orphans and a wayward family who, to lift a curse, are searching for the bones of a long-dead relative; and several of her grandfather's stories about Gavran Gailé, the deathless man, whose appearances coincide with catastrophe and who may hold the key to all the stories that ensnare Natalia. Obreht is an expert at depicting history through aftermath, people through the love they inspire, and place through the stories that endure; the reflected world she creates is both immediately recognizable and a legend in its own right. Obreht is talented far beyond her years, and her unsentimental faith in language, dream, and memory is a pleasure. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“Stunning . . . a richly textured and searing novel.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Spectacular . . . [Téa Obreht] spins a tale of such marvel and magic in a literary voice so enchanting that the mesmerized reader wants her never to stop. [Grade:] A”—Entertainment Weekly

“[Obreht] has a talent for subtle plotting that eludes most writers twice her age, and her descriptive powers suggest a kind of channeled genius. . . . No novel [this year] has been more satisfying.”—The Wall Street Journal 
 
“Filled with astonishing immediacy and presence, fleshed out with detail that seems firsthand, The Tiger’s Wife is all the more remarkable for being the product not of observation but of imagination.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“That The Tiger’s Wife never slips entirely into magical realism is part of its magic. . . . Its graceful commingling of contemporary realism and village legend seems even more absorbing.”—The Washington Post
 
“So rich with themes of love, legends and mortality that every novel that comes after it this year is in peril of falling short in comparison with its uncanny beauty.”—Time

“Mesmerizing . . . [Tea] Obreht’s striking ability to explain the world through stories is matched by her patience with the parts of life—and death—that endlessly confound us.”—The Boston Globe

“Makes for a thrilling beginning to what will certainly be a great literary career.”—Elle

“A compelling, persuasive writer, Obreht brings improbable elements to life on the page. Better, she makes them snap together with such magical skill that even the skeptical reader believes.”—Chicago Sun-Times

“In Obreht’s expert hands, the novel’s mythology, while rooted in a foreign world, comes to be somehow familiar, like the dark fairy tales of our own youth, the kind that spooked us into reading them again and again.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

“Obreht writes with an angel’s pen . . . creating a skein of descriptive passages flush with apt details and ringing with lyrical diction about city life, country life, private dreams and public difficulties.”—NPR’s “All Things Considered”

“Gorgeous . . . one of the most extraordinary debut novels in recent memory.”—Vogue

“Every word, every scene, every thought is blazingly alive in this many-faceted, spellbinding, and rending novel of death, succor, and remembrance.”—Booklist (starred review)

“A spectacular accomplishment . . . written in a wry, classical, luxuriant style reminiscent of Tolstoy.”—Marie Claire

Library Journal
In the torn-up Balkans, as medic Natalia is preparing to cross what was once not a border to help vaccinate orphans, she learns that her distinguished physician grandfather has died in an obscure clinic not far from where she's going. No one knows what he was doing there, though Natalia does know he was seriously ill. This incident opens up Obreht's dizzyingly nuanced yet crisp, muscularly written narrative by allowing Natalia to introduce two stories (fables? truth?) that her grandfather related to her. One concerns the "deathless man" her grandfather sometimes encountered, who collected the souls of the dead. The other concerns a tiger that escaped from the zoo during World War II and made its way to the village where her grandfather lived as a boy. Attempts to kill the tiger fail, but the butcher's abused, deaf-mute wife seems mystically connected to the great beast, rousing the villagers' fear and anger. That tiger—and others seen later at the zoo—looms here as a symbol of defiant, struggling hope as the deathless man continues his task. VERDICT Demanding one's full attention, this complex, humbling, and beautifully crafted debut from one of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 is highly recommended for anyone seriously interested in contemporary fiction. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/10.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
The Barnes & Noble Review

Téa Obreht's fame was virtually assured even before publication of The Tiger's Wife, her first novel. Excerpts of the book appearing in The New Yorker created a stir and earned her inclusion in that magazine's "20 Under 40" list of fiction writers. Now we finally have the book in its entirety.

Encapsulating The Tiger's Wife in a single phrase or sentence is impossible. This is a novel in name only, for it comprises an array of widely different tales held together by the flimsiest of conceits, that of the narrator recalling the eventful life and times of her late grandfather. The tales themselves prove individually luscious, though not without an unpleasant cumulative effect. It may strike some as a cavil, but the plain truth is that The Tiger's Wife, while certainly entertaining and of considerable literary merit, is too rich for its own good: Obreht would have been well-advised to parcel out its constituent elements as stand-alone stories.

Narrated by a young pediatrician named Natalia, the story takes place in an unnamed land clearly modeled after the former Yugoslavia, where Obreht was born and spent her early childhood. In between her current project of inoculating disadvantaged orphans against disease -- "The wails of children in distress are monstrously contagious: the moment one child strikes up, six more follow it" -- Natalia's thoughts drift to her recently deceased grandfather, a prominent surgeon, and his adventuresome life. "Everything necessary to understand my grandfather," she muses, "lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories in his life."

And so begins the series of rollicking, meandering, and at times briefly intersecting tales making up this novel, with Natalia alternating between recounting episodes from her grandfather's life and others from hers, some of which also feature her grandfather. In a book brimming with arresting yet overly colorful characters, some tinged with specks of magic realism, the tiger's wife herself stands out both for her gravitas and her believability. A lonely deaf-mute married to an abusive butcher in an isolated mountain village, she is given her derogatory moniker during the Second World War. Her apparent affection for a tiger that has escaped the zoo in the country's bomb-flattened capital and now roams the mountain forests prompts salacious and hostile gossip on the part of the villagers, who eventually decide to kill the majestic creature. Natalia's grandfather, a child enamored of Kipling's The Jungle Book and determined to protect the tiger from the frenzied villagers, forges a bond with the battered but stoic and immensely dignified woman spurned by almost everyone else.

Obreht's storytelling impulse is so powerful that she cannot help devising extensive background histories for a host of secondary characters. These tangents distract attention from the main narrative, but often prove intriguing and contain some of the book's most enduring images. In the later chapters devoted to the tiger's wife, for example, Darisa the Bear enters the picture. Before he became a renowned hunter and outstanding taxidermist, Darisa spent many nights of his childhood practicing a crude form of the craft he would later master. Unable to sleep for fear death would pounce and claim his sickly older sister, Darisa tried to lure the Grim Reaper to the cellar, where he labored nightly to restore the appearance of dead cats and other small animals. "If he kept Death there," figured Darisa, "kept it riveted and preoccupied, thought about it while it shared the cellar with him, it would not wander the house."

Natalia's grandfather also grapples with death, but in the form of a deathless man who crosses paths with him at several points in his life. The encounters between the two are predictably strange and surreal, though also surprisingly poignant, none more so than a dinner in a deserted restaurant in a Muslim city called Sarobor about to be pummeled by enemy militia. Obreht is likely thinking of the agonizing Siege of Sarajevo, and Natalia's grandfather, a Christian married to a Muslim from Sarobor, wonders if his time has finally come as he chats with the deathless man over a plate of John Dory fish.

Death, of course, is precisely what the world associated with Yugoslavia in the 1990s, due to a series of brutal wars that involved numerous massacres of civilians. In those sections of The Tiger's Wife revolving around Natalia's teens and early adulthood, when her country splits into several, Obreht memorably depicts the terror, absurdity, and tedium of war. Natalia emerges from these experiences a tough but contemplative woman, and her observations on the nature of conflict are profound:

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.

If The Tiger's Wife represents the literary exuberance of a young writer -- Obreht is in her mid-twenties -- the author's future novels may well be more restrained, without losing their luster. Indeed, based on what is on display here, it is difficult to imagine that Obreht will ever grow stingy when it comes to augmenting her central narrative with enchanting subplots and secondary storylines. And that's fine: if Obreht narrows her focus and curtails her embellishments, her undeniable flair for storytelling could produce a magnificent novel. Until then, The Tiger's Wife will seduce and confound, fascinate and exasperate.

--Rayyan Al-Shawaf

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780297859017
  • Publisher: George Weidenfeld & Nicholson
  • Publication date: 3/28/2011

Meet the Author

Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in New York.

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Read an Excerpt

1

The Coast

the forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death. That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and the windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river. The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past—the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else—and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back. For this reason, the living bring their own rituals to a standstill: to welcome the newly loosed spirit, the living will not clean, will not wash or tidy, will not remove the soul’s belongings for forty days, hoping that sentiment and longing will bring it home again, encourage it to return with a message, with a sign, or with forgiveness.

If it is properly enticed, the soul will return as the days go by, to rummage through drawers, peer inside cupboards, seek the tactile comfort of its living identity by reassessing the dish rack and the doorbell and the telephone, reminding itself of functionality, all the time touching things that produce sound and make its presence known to the inhabitants of the house.

Speaking quietly into the phone, my grandma reminded me of this after she told me of my grandfather’s death. For her, the forty days were fact and common sense, knowledge left over from burying two parents and an older sister, assorted cousins and strangers from her hometown, a formula she had recited to comfort my grandfather whenever he lost a patient in whom he was particularly invested—a superstition, according to him, but something in which he had indulged her with less and less protest as old age had hardened her beliefs.

My grandma was shocked, angry because we had been robbed of my grandfather’s forty days, reduced now to thirty-seven or thirty-eight by the circumstances of his death. He had died alone, on a trip away from home; she hadn’t known that he was already dead when she ironed his clothes the day before, or washed the dishes that morning, and she couldn’t account for the spiritual consequences of her ignorance. He had died in a clinic in an obscure town called Zdrevkov on the other side of the border; no one my grandma had spoken to knew where Zdrevkov was, and when she asked me, I told her the truth: I had no idea what he had been doing there.

“You’re lying,” she said.

“Bako, I’m not.”

“He told us he was on his way to meet you.”

“That can’t be right,” I said.

He had lied to her, I realized, and lied to me. He had taken advantage of my own cross-country trip to slip away—a week ago, she was saying, by bus, right after I had set out myself—and had gone off for some reason unknown to either of us. It had taken the Zdrevkov clinic staff three whole days to track my grandma down after he died, to tell her and my mother that he was dead, arrange to send his body. It had arrived at the City morgue that morning, but by then, I was already four hundred miles from home, standing in the public bathroom at the last service station before the border, the pay phone against my ear, my pant legs rolled up, sandals in hand, bare feet slipping on the green tiles under the broken sink.

Somebody had fastened a bent hose onto the faucet, and it hung, nozzle down, from the boiler pipes, coughing thin streams of water onto the floor. It must have been going for hours: water was everywhere, flooding the tile grooves and pooling around the rims of the squat toilets, dripping over the doorstep and into the dried-up garden behind the shack. None of this fazed the bathroom attendant, a middle-aged woman with an orange scarf tied around her hair, whom I had found dozing in a corner chair and dismissed from the room with a handful of bills, afraid of what those seven missed beeper pages from my grandma meant before I even picked up the receiver.

I was furious with her for not having told me that my grandfather had left home. He had told her and my mother that he was worried about my goodwill mission, about the inoculations at the Brejevina orphanage, and that he was coming down to help. But I couldn’t berate my grandma without giving myself away, because she would have told me if she had known about his illness, which my grandfather and I had hidden from her. So I let her talk, and said nothing about how I had been with him at the Military Academy of Medicine three months before when he had found out, or how the oncologist, a lifelong colleague of my grandfather’s, had shown him the scans and my grandfather had put his hat down on his knee and said, “Fuck. You go looking for a gnat and you find a donkey.”

I put two more coins into the slot, and the phone whirred. Sparrows were diving from the brick ledges of the bathroom walls, dropping into the puddles at my feet, shivering water over their backs. The sun outside had baked the early afternoon into stillness, and the hot, wet air stood in the room with me, shining in the doorway that led out to the road, where the cars at border control were packed in a tight line along the glazed tarmac. I could see our car, left side dented from a recent run-in with a tractor, and Zóra sitting in the driver’s seat, door propped open, one long leg dragging along the ground, glances darting back toward the bathroom more and more often as she drew closer to the customs booth.

“They called last night,” my grandma was saying, her voice louder. “And I thought, they’ve made a mistake. I didn’t want to call you until we were sure, to worry you in case it wasn’t him. But your mother went down to the morgue this morning.” She was quiet, and then: “I don’t understand, I don’t understand any of it.”

“I don’t either, Bako,” I said.

“He was going to meet you.”

“I didn’t know about it.”

Then the tone of her voice changed. She was suspicious, my grandma, of why I wasn’t crying, why I wasn’t hysterical. For the first ten minutes of our conversation, she had probably allowed herself to believe that my calm was the result of my being in a foreign hospital, on assignment, surrounded, perhaps, by colleagues. She would have challenged me a lot sooner if she had known that I was hiding in the border-stop bathroom so that Zóra wouldn’t overhear.

She said, “Haven’t you got anything to say?”

“I just don’t know, Bako. Why would he lie about coming to see me?”

“You haven’t asked if it was an accident,” she said. “Why haven’t you asked that? Why haven’t you asked how he died?”

“I didn’t even know he had left home,” I said. “I didn’t know any of this was going on.”

“You’re not crying,” she said.

“Neither are you.”

“Your mother is heartbroken,” she said to me. “He must have known. They said he was very ill—so he must have known, he must have told someone. Was it you?”

“If he had known, he wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” I said, with what I hoped was conviction. “He would have known better.” There were white towels stacked neatly on a metal shelf above the mirror, and I wiped my face and neck with one, and then another, and the skin of my face and neck left gray smears on towel after towel until I had used up five. There was no laundry basket to put them in, so I left them in the sink. “Where is this place where they found him?” I said. “How far did he go?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “They didn’t tell us. Somewhere on the other side.”

“Maybe it was a specialty clinic,” I said.

“He was on his way to see you.”

“Did he leave a letter?”

He hadn’t. My mother and grandma, I realized, had both probably seen his departure as part of his unwillingness to retire, like his relationship with a new housebound patient outside the City—a patient we had made up as a cover for his visits to the oncologist friend from the weekly doctors’ luncheon, a man who gave injections of some formulas that were supposed to help with the pain. Colorful formulas, my grandfather said when he came home, as if he knew the whole time that the formulas were just water laced with food coloring, as if it didn’t matter anymore. He had, at first, more or less retained his healthy cast, which made hiding his illness easier; but after seeing him come out of these sessions just once, I had threatened to tell my mother, and he said: “Don’t you dare.” And that was that.

My grandma was asking me: “Are you already in Brejevina?”

“We’re at the border,” I said. “We just came over on the ferry.”

Outside, the line of cars was beginning to move again. I saw Zóra put her cigarette out on the ground, pull her leg back in and slam the door. A flurry of people who had assembled on the gravel shoulder to stretch and smoke, to check their tires and fill water bottles at the fountain, to look impatiently down the line, or dispose of pastries and sandwiches they had been attempting to smuggle, or urinate against the side of the bathroom, scrambled to get back to their vehicles.

My grandma was silent for a few moments. I could hear the line clicking, and then she said: “Your mother wants to have the funeral in the next few days. Couldn’t Zóra go on to Brejevina by herself?”

If I had told Zóra about it, she would have made me go home immediately. She would have given me the car, taken the vaccine coolers, and hitchhiked across the border to make the University’s good-faith delivery to the orphanage at Brejevina up the coast. But I said: “We’re almost there, Bako, and a lot of kids are waiting on these shots.”

She didn’t ask me again. My grandma just gave me the date of the funeral, the time, the place, even though I already knew where it would be, up on Strmina, the hill overlooking the City, where Mother Vera, my great-great-grandmother, was buried. After she hung up, I ran the faucet with my elbow and filled the water bottles I had brought as my pretext for getting out of the car. On the gravel outside, I rinsed off my feet before putting my shoes back on; Zóra left the engine running and jumped out to take her turn while I climbed into the driver’s seat, pulled it forward to compensate for my height, and made sure our licenses and medication import documents were lined up in the correct order on the dashboard. Two cars in front of us, a customs official, green shirt clinging to his chest, was opening the hatchback of an elderly couple’s car, leaning carefully into it, unzipping suitcases with a gloved hand.

When Zóra got back, I didn’t tell her anything about my grandfather. It had already been a bleak year for us both. I had made the mistake of walking out with the nurses during the strike in January; rewarded for my efforts with an indefinite suspension from the Vojvodja clinic, I had been housebound for months—a blessing, in a way, because it meant I was around for my grandfather when the diagnosis came in. He was glad of it at first, but never passed up the opportunity to call me a gullible jackass for getting suspended. And then, as his illness wore on, he began spending less and less time at home, and suggested I do the same; he didn’t want me hanging around, looking morose, scaring the hell out of him when he woke up without his glasses on to find me hovering over his bed in the middle of the night. My behavior, he said, was tipping my grandma off about his illness, making her suspicious of our silences and exchanges, and of the fact that my grandfather and I were busier than ever now that we were respectively retired and suspended. He wanted me to think about my specialization, too, about what I would do with myself once the suspension was lifted—he was not surprised that Srdjan, a professor of biochemical engineering with whom I had, according to my grandfather, “been tangling,” had failed to put in a good word for me with the suspension committee. At my grandfather’s suggestion, I had gone back to volunteering with the University’s United Clinics program, something I hadn’t done since the end of the war.

Zóra was using this volunteering mission as an excuse to get away from a blowup at the Military Academy of Medicine. Four years after getting her medical degree, she was still at the trauma center, hoping that exposure to a variety of surgical procedures would help her decide on a specialization. Unfortunately, she had spent the bulk of that time under a trauma director known throughout the City as Ironglove—a name he had earned during his days as chief of obstetrics, when he had failed to remove the silver bracelets he kept stacked on his wrist during pelvic examinations. Zóra was a woman of principle, an open atheist. 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 church; four years of butting heads with Ironglove had culminated in an incident that Zóra, under the direction of the state prosecutor, was prohibited from discussing. Zóra’s silence on the subject extended even to me, but the scraps I had heard around hospital hallways centered around a railway worker, an accident, and a digital amputation during which Ironglove, who may or may not have been inebriated, had said something like: “Don’t worry, sir—it’s a lot easier to watch the second finger come off if you’re biting down on the first.”

Naturally, a lawsuit was in the works, and Zóra had been summoned back to testify against Ironglove. Despite his reputation, he was still well connected in the medical community, and now Zóra was torn between sticking it to a man she had despised for years, and risking a career and reputation she was just beginning to build for herself; for the first time no one—not me, not her father, not her latest boyfriend—could point her in the right direction. After setting out, we had spent a week at the United Clinics headquarters for our briefing and training, and all this time she had met both my curiosity and the state prosecutor’s incessant phone calls with the same determined silence. Then yesterday, against all odds, she had admitted to wanting my grandfather’s advice as soon as we got back to the City. She hadn’t seen him around the hospital for the past month, hadn’t seen his graying face, the way his skin was starting to loosen around his bones.

We watched the customs officer confiscate two jars of beach pebbles from the elderly couple, and wave the next car through; when he got to us, he spent twenty minutes looking over our passports and identity cards, our letters of certification from the University. He opened the medicine coolers and lined them up on the tarmac while Zóra towered over him, arms crossed, and then said, “You realize, of course, that the fact that it’s in a cooler means it’s temperature-sensitive—or don’t they teach you about refrigeration at the village schoolhouse?” knowing that everything was in order, knowing that, realistically, he couldn’t touch us. This challenge, however, prompted him to search the car for weapons, stowaways, shellfish, and uncertified pets for a further thirty minutes.

Twelve years ago, before the war, the people of Brejevina had been our people. The border had been a joke, an occasional formality, and you used to drive or fly or walk across as you pleased, by woodland, by water, by open plain. You used to offer the customs officials sandwiches or jars of pickled peppers as you went through. Nobody asked you your name—although, as it turned out, everyone had apparently been anxious about it all along, about how your name started and ended. Our assignment in Brejevina was intended to rebuild something. Our University wanted to collaborate with the local government in getting several orphanages on their feet, and to begin attracting young people from across the border back to the City. That was the long-term diplomatic objective of our journey—but in layman’s terms Zóra and I were there to sanitize children orphaned by our own soldiers, to examine them for pneumonia and tuberculosis and lice, to inoculate them against measles, mumps, rubella, and other assorted diseases to which they had been subjected during the war and the years of destitution that followed it. Our contact in Brejevina, a Franciscan monk named Fra Antun, had been enthusiastic and hospitable, paging us to make sure our journey was unencumbered, and to assure us that his parents, conveniently enough, were looking forward to hosting us. His voice was always cheerful, especially for a man who had spent the last three years fighting to fund the establishment and construction of the first official orphanage on the coast, and who was, in the meantime, housing sixty orphaned children at a monastery intended to accommodate twenty monks.

Zóra and I were joining up for this charitable trip before our lives took us apart for the first time in the twenty-some-odd years we had known each other. We would wear our white doctors’ coats even off duty in order to appear simultaneously trustworthy and disconcerting. We were formidable with our four supplies coolers loaded with vials of MMR-II and IPV, with boxes of candy we were bringing to stave off the crying and screaming we felt certain would ensue once the inoculation got going. We had an old map, which we kept in the car years after it had become completely inaccurate. We had used the map on every road trip we had ever taken, and it showed in the marker scribbling all over it: the crossed-out areas we were supposed to avoid on our way to some medical conference or other, the stick man holding crudely drawn skis on a mountain resort we had loved that was no longer a part of our country.

I couldn’t find Zdrevkov, the place where my grandfather died, on that map. I couldn’t find Brejevina either, but I had known in advance that it was missing, so we had drawn it in. It was a small seaside village forty kilometers east of the new border. We drove through red-roofed villages that clung to the lip of the sea, past churches and horse pastures, past steep plains bright with purple bellflowers, past sunlit waterfalls that thrust out of the sheer rock-face above the road. Every so often we entered woodland, high pine forests dotted with olives and cypresses, the sea flashing like a knife where the forest fell away down the slope. Parts of the road were well paved, but there were places where it ripped up into ruts and stretches of gravel that hadn’t been fixed in years.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Natalia says that the key to her grandfather’s life and death
“lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man.” What power do the stories we tell about ourselves have to shape our identity and help us understand our lives?
 
2. Which of the different ways the characters go about making peace with the dead felt familiar from your own life? Which took you by surprise?
 
3. Natalia believes that her grandfather’s memories of the village apothecary “must have been imperishable.” What lesson do you think he might have learned from what happened to the
Apothecary?
 
4. What significance does the tiger have to the different characters in the novel: Natalia, her grandfather, the tiger’s wife, the villagers? Why do you think Natalia’s grandfather’s reaction to the tiger’s appearance in the village was so different than the rest of the villagers?
 
5. “The story of this war—dates, names, who started it, why—
that belongs to everyone,” Natalia’s grandfather tells her. But
“those moments you keep to yourself” are more important. By eliding place names and specific events of recent Balkan history,
what do you think the author is doing?
 
6. When the deathless man and the grandfather share a last meal before the bombing of Sarobor, the grandfather urges the deathless man to tell the waiter his fate so he can go home and be with his family. Is Gavran Gailé right to decide to stop telling people that they are going to die? Would you rather know your death was coming or go “in suddenness”?
 
7. Did knowing more about Luka’s past make him more sympathetic?
Why do you think the author might have chosen to give the back stories of Luka, Dariša the Bear, and the apothecary?
 
8. The copy of The Jungle Book Natalia’s grandfather always carries around in his coat pocket is not among the possessions she collects after his death. What do you think happens to it?
 
9. The novel moves back and forth between myth and modern-
day “real life.” What did you think of the juxtaposition of folklore and contemporary realism?
 
10. Of all the themes of this novel—war, storytelling, family,
death, myth, etc.—which one resonated the most for you?
 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 413 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(106)

4 Star

(100)

3 Star

(119)

2 Star

(47)

1 Star

(41)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 413 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 18, 2011

    Slow in the fast lane

    I often forget, when people tell me they like to read, that sometimes they read books about being "Behind the Scenes" of a reality television series. When they tell me they like to read, I forget that there are people who like to drive, who drive slow in the fast lane. I forget when they say they like to read, that there are people with lower IQ's, who like to read.

    I also forget that some people read about elfs, spacemen, cowboys and romances... ONLY.

    So, what I'll say is that if, when you hear people say that they too "like to read", you conjure them reading about bells tolling, worlds according to people, boys and tigers in boats, colors like purple, 22nd catches and any number of catchERs in rye - I suspect you'll like this book.

    Enjoy!

    50 out of 159 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 16, 2011

    Could not put it down!

    This masterwork of modern literature is appreciated by readers who can enjoy a story told from many perspectives, blending modern-day narrative with flashbacks by both the narrator and her recently-deceased grandfather, with forays into folk tale and myth. By the end, all the threads are woven into an exotic tapestry where the present is enriched by the past. While many mysteries are solved, some are deliberately and deliciously left unexplained for the reader to chew on. I look forward to more by this author. Readers who find it difficult and boring should fault themselves, not the writing. Go back to the shallow end, and don't complain that the water is too deep when you simply haven't learned to swim. And if you don't understand that metaphor, get out of the pool!

    41 out of 46 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 1, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Interesting and intriguing read

    Beautifully written, haunting, sometimes eerie, the stories mix myth with reality. The narrator, Natalia, is a young doctor. While on her way to vaccinate some children in an orphanage across the border, she learns that her doctor grandfather has left home on a mysterious errand and died not far from where she is headed. His body has been shipped back, but she sets out to recover his possessions and, more importantly, discover why he died so far from home. The stories are connected by common themes of mutilation and death, laying spirits to rest, and bringing the bodies home. The journey through these tales are more important than the final destination. Stories and their importance in our lives, how myth, legend and superstition shape and mold our lives are themes that run throughout the story. Interesting and intriguing read.

    28 out of 32 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2011

    All over the place

    I can see the potential in this book. The stories were interestings and well written, however there were too many of them and the author doesn't do a good job linking them all together. At the end you are left with no connections and a feeling of wasted time and talent

    20 out of 32 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Don't miss out on the best

    This is a superb piece of literature. Exquisitely written, and built around astounding story-telling. It adds richness to all we know about growing up, families, community life, literature in life, vocation, culture. About life and about death.

    16 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 24, 2011

    Beautiful, unique story!

    The Tiger's Wife is the story of Natalie, a young doctor in the Balkans, who has been raised in awe of her brilliant grandfather. As she was growing up he would often take her to the zoo to visit the tigers. Much later she is traveling across a war torn region to bring vaccinations to an orphanage when she learns that her grandfather has died under strange circumstances. When she begins to investigate improbable and magical stories of the tiger's wife and the deathless man begin to surface.

    The Tiger's Wife is a beautiful and highly unique story told in an entirely fresh style. The tone of magical realism lurking beneath the surface of Natalia's grandfather's practical life is always perfectly balanced, just enough that you can't ignore it, but never enough to sound implausible. Natalia herself can't quite believe or disbelieve and all the while the tiger is there, a shadowy presence in every dark corner. The setting of the exotic and unknown Balkans just adds to the mystery even more.

    I truly enjoyed this fantastical book. It is not often that you come across such an original voice as Tea Obreht's and I look forwarding to reading more.

    15 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 29, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Masterfully Woven Tapestry

    THE TIGER'S WIFE by Téa Obreht ?????

    Unbelievably good first novel! Ms. Obreht is going to be fun to watch over the coming years. Initially, I turned down an advanced reader copy of this one because the plot sounded a little chaotic to me. A reading friend gave it five stars and a glowing review; we don't always agree over books, but her review made me give it another look. Thank you, Susan! I couldn't agree more!

    Generally, I synopsize my reads in a couple of quick sentences, but there are so many layers to this plot that I am cheating and giving you Random House's advanced publication copy (the same one that made me turn the book down initially...):

    In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself.
    But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather's recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.? ?Grief struck and searching for clues to her grandfather's final state of mind, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child. On their weekly trips to the zoo he would read to her from a worn copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which he carried with him everywhere; later, he told her stories of his own encounters over many years with "the deathless man," a vagabond who claimed to be immortal and appeared never to age. But the most extraordinary story of all is the one her grandfather never told her, the one Natalia must discover for herself. One winter during the Second World War, his childhood village was snowbound, cut off even from the encroaching German invaders but haunted by another, fierce presence: a tiger who comes ever closer under cover of darkness. "These stories," Natalia comes to understand, "run like secret rivers through all the other stories" of her grandfather's life. And it is ultimately within these rich, luminous narratives that she will find the answer she is looking for.

    This is one of those books which, when you close the cover for the final time, makes you sit there for a moment staring at the picture on the front and thinking, "Wow!"

    In structure, the book has the feel of being composed of a number of short stories. While this is Ms. Obreht's first novel, she is an acclaimed short story author, so it is possible that this technique was used intensionally. What the author manages to do with these segments is what speaks to her great gifts. Imagine sentences as silken threads of a tapestry, woven into sections. As the narrative moves forward, many such sections emerge, and the background begins to fill in and connect the seemingly disparate parts. Téa Obreht is a master weaver. Never does the book come across feeling as if someone tried to writ

    13 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 31, 2011

    Well written but terribly dull

    This book is extremely well written and the author makes great use of descriptive language. However, if you like the kind of story where the characters develop, or where there is a plot, or where, um, I don't know, things happen, then this will not be the book for you. The blend of present events and old stories from the protagonist's grandfather would work if the author didn't layer double or even triple flashbacks to develop largely irrelevant details about tertiary characters. I would also complain about the total lack of any climax or resolution, but there is nothing going on in the book that could climax or resolve. The only reason I bothered to finish this book is because I refused to pay $15 and not do so. The author is a gifted writer but a poor storyteller, and I did not find this book enjoyable at all.

    11 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 28, 2011

    Struggling...

    Bought the book based on the great reviews in all the magazines. I'm struggling to finish it and have been disappointed so far. Hoping it gets better in the last quarter of the book.

    10 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 18, 2011

    Other better things to do!!!

    While reading this book, I can think of many different books that I would rather be reading . This book is boring and confusing. No plot or discernible characters , I have to keep going back because I feel like I have missed something . I will finish it because I paid for it but I wish somebody like myself read the book and filled me in on how uneventful and plodding it is .

    9 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 3, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Reminds one of old European woodcutter's superstitions and stories

    Obreht definitely shows her talent for creating characters and stories in this book. As the stories/myths of the deathless man and the tiger's wife unraveled throughout the book, I was caught up in the back stories of the characters such as the waiter and the apothecary. The story telling itself reminded me of The Life of Pi. Natalie, the young doctor and granddaughter to the old doctor who has died, makes a strong narrator. However, I just wasn't interested in what was happening around her as she goes to the monastery to inoculate chldren. I've read other reviews which describe a better connection between the present day action of the book and the grandfather's stories than what I felt. I see the book's literary merit; I just am not a fan of stories that are so heavily laden with characters whose lives are molded by superstition and myth. Whether, the story is European, African, Indian, or Eastern, I am too much of a realist to be strongly attracted to such stories. I do believe that Tiger's Wife is a title worthy of book club discussions, especially since I've seen a wide range of reactions to it. Clearly, if you want a challenge, this is one to consider. If you expect a linear novel with defined plot and action, this will not meet your expectations. I received an e-copy of this book with the expectation that I would write an honest review. This reaction is my own.

    7 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 27, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Lots of Potential

    Was originally interested in this book because of the setting (Balkans), my soft spot for orphanages and those who try to help, and the mystery that somehow brings in Kipling's Jungle book. I liked the mystical elements of the deathless man and the tiger. At times, the smaller story lines became very interesting. Unfortunately, most of the time I was merely an interested and occasionally confused reader. For the sensitive reader: spousal abuse, occasional gratuitous profanity Note: This advanced reader's edition was provided through the GoodReads First Read program with the expectation of an honest review. My opinions are my own.

    7 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 17, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    A Good Read

    This was a good book. Not a great book but a good one. What's a great book? A book that changes my life. A book that helped shape who I am now and hopefully will be in the future. A book that changes my mind. A book that changes my path. THIS book was a good read. It wasn't scattered or hard to read. It follows three stories. One in the present of the girls' Grandfather who died and two stories he told her in the past that helped shape who he was. One being The Tiger's Wife and one being The Deathless Man (he was my favorite). It did feel like it had definite closure. More about the closure of the soul than a tangible ending but an ending nonetheless. I even enjoyed the way it came full circle. There was a connection in the stories that I did not see coming. Anyways, I don't want to give away too much of the plot. But unlike many reviewers, I felt it wasn't "hard" to read at all (surely you can follow three stories with clearly defined story lines and chapter changes) nor was I left with the feeling of being left to hang. I felt the ending was perfect.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2012

    How did this get on the best seller list?

    I kept waiting for a plot. I kept forcing myself to keep going thinking it would get better. I didn't really understand why some people were raving about it. Well written but not worth the money I paid for this book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2012

    Very strange

    I kept waiting for it all to make sense. Still waiting.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2011

    Read it!

    This novel totally restored my faith in the power of contemporary literature. Great storytelling, expansive plot, wonderful language. I was totally swept away. Enjoy!

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 12, 2011

    cannot recommend to anyone, waste of time

    I was extremely surprised at how boring this book is. After the glowing reviews I thought it would be just wonderful. I just kept on reading until I finally said "enough". Could not stand to go further , too many books waiting to be read. So when I read other customers remarks felt that I was not the only disappointed reader, glad I did not spent money and read library copy. I am learning to be very careful when I read reviews.

    3 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2012

    Awesome. The one thing I like about The Tiger's Wife is that it

    Awesome. The one thing I like about The Tiger's Wife is that it is a beautifully written book. In fact, it is mesmerizing. I am awed by the creative mind of the author. Besides, it is a first book. It provides a fascinating insight into the Balkans and the myths or superstitions that abound there. The author conveys the deep message behind the story, which explains not only the resilience of the area but also the ravages that it has been subjected to throughout its turbulent history. Tea moved from the present to the past in an effortless manner, crafting characters that are both imposing and colorful.

    The way the real and the mythical are blended together in this story written by its promising author reminds me of Disciples of Fortune. The plot in this story is brilliant and the setting carries the day. The Balkans is a puzzling part of Europe. The writing itself is excellent. This is a book to read again.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 3, 2012

    The book had the sporadic makings of a great one but was disjoin

    The book had the sporadic makings of a great one but was disjointed and confusing. I struggled to finish it, and ultimately ended up not caring enough what the ending was and put it down with 5 pages left. Waste of money.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2012

    we read the book for book club. I did not like it. Story was

    we read the book for book club. I did not like it. Story was too disconnected between chapters. I can not recommend this book. Total waste of time for me.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 413 Customer Reviews

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