Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Legend of a Tiger

The Tiger's Wife
The Tiger's Wife 

"By the time I was thirteen, the ritual of the tigers had become an annoyance. Our way home from the zoo was continually marked by encounters with people I knew: friends, kids my own age, who had long since stopped sharing the company of their elders. I would see them sitting in cafés, smoking on the curb at the Parliament threshold. And they would see me, and remember seeing me, remember enough to laugh mildly about it at school. Their mocking wasn’t unkind, just easy; but it reminded me that I was the prisoner of a rite I no longer felt necessary."

This book impressed me not so much as a novel than as a short story collection thematically connected through the story of a young girl and her grandfather. In the way that the story moved back and forth between interesting vignettes about the Grandfather and tales of "The Tiger's Wife" it reminded me slightly of another novel that I did not like as much, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai in which the narrative shifts back and forth between stories of different family members in different times and places. I enjoyed the tales in Obreht's "novel" individually much more than those of Desai and her central narrative with vivid characters and a mythic quality.
As I said, the novel shifts back and forth, chapter by chapter, between the past and the present; between superstition and science; between folklore and realism; between the fantastic and current realities. Thus the novel does not have a linear structure with typical plot advancement, a practice that seems to be more and more common in contemporary literature. That need not be a problem if there are sufficient connections between the episodes - and there are some thematic connections -- in addition to the basic tiger theme there are others like hunting; a theme which is central to the story of the blacksmith during an episode in 1941:
"…The blacksmith had the ramrod out and he was shoving it into the muzzle, pumping and pumping and pumping furiously, his hand already on the trigger, and he was ready to fire, strangely calm with the tiger there, almost on him, its whiskers so close and surprisingly bright and rigid. At last, it was done, and he tossed the ramrod aside and peered into the barrel, just to be sure, and blew his own head off with a thunderclap."
That’s the last we hear of the blacksmith, but his brief presence announces the hunting theme that will come back later in the novel, and provides a deliberate contrast with the very different hunter who arrives in the second half of the book—a man who is as competent with his weapon as the blacksmith is clumsy with his.  But the thematic linkages between the stories needed to be stronger.   Nevertheless The Tiger's Wife was a rewarding reading experience for me as it brought together historical and contemporary themes with both haunting images and rich symbolism.

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. Phoenix Paperbacks, London. 2011.

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