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Friday, February 1, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: The Tiger's Wife

No, I am not a week behind on this report, the BPL Monday Book Discussion was pushed back a week due to the library having no heat on our regularly scheduled day. 

We began the year with The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht.  From  the publisher:
"Weaving a brilliant latticework of family legend, loss, and love, Tea Obreht, the youngest of The New Yorker’s twenty best American fiction writers under forty, has spun a timeless novel that will establish her as one of the most vibrant, original authors of her generation.
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."
As you can see from the publisher's summary, this is a complex book, but it was also a beautiful story. And, as you will see from our discussion below, many people did not love the book, but all appreciated its beauty and were thankful that we had the chance to discuss it.

On a personal note, I was captivated by this novel.  It is a story of Natalia's coming of age, but it is also a story full of stories. While it bounces back and forth rather fluidly, making it hard to follow the plot at times, I did not care.  I followed Obreht where she wanted to take me, and I am happy I got to go along for such a wonderful ride.

On to the discussion:
  • We began with 3 votes for like, 4 for dislike, and 7 for so-so.  So, while the vast majority had problems with the book, 10 out of 14 saw more to like than dislike.  However, it is important to note that of the 4 who disliked it a few felt very strongly in that camp.
  • Opening comments that got the discussion started:
    • I liked the descriptions in the book, not only were they detailed, but there were things I never imagined.
    • I loved the relationship between Natalia and her grandfather.  It was special, moving, and interesting to follow.
    • I was struggling at the beginning, and then next thing I knew, I was hooked.
    • It was not a book you could read in short spurts; you really have to sit down and read it in chunks.
    • The non-linear story line threw me but once I got into it, I enjoyed the story.  Others could not get past the nonlinear story line.
    • I liked all the side stories and long back stories of the characters.  But on the other hand someone said while these were their favorite part of the novel, when the story went back to its present, she was confused as to where she was in Natalia's story and wanted to go back to the back story of the peripheral character she was just getting engrossed in.
    • This is a culture I am not familiar with.  That was jarring at first, but I liked learning more.
    • I did not like the completely open ending. One person even said she didn't even understand that it was over; she needed more explanation.
    • I loved the descriptions of all of the characters.  And then someone chimed in-- no, there was too much description.
    • I felt like I was in school reading this book.  I couldn't understand it.  There are plenty of better books I could have read.  Someone countered that maybe it was hard to understand and confusing because Obreht's life was confusing. We talked about how she spent the first dozen years of her life leaving her home in Belgrade and travelling to many countries before settling in the US.  At 25 she is trying to work through where she came from so she can begin her adult life.
  • As you can see we had a lot more opening comments than usual.  This was great.  People had things they had to get out about their feelings for the book.  They could not wait to say them.  For a few comments I had to say, let's hold that for later. So no matter how they felt about the book, they were all eager to join the fray.
  • We talked about the setting.  Although it is clear that the novel is set in the former Yugoslavia both before and after the Bosnian war, everything is kept rather vague.  In fact, other wars in the past are discussed and alluded to especially when we are in the grandfather's stories of his life.  A few people were annoyed that they could not get a clear picture of the place and the wars.  It is made clear that Natalia's family has ties to multiple sides of the Bosnian war and, at the same time, no ties really at all.  But one participant chimed in that she liked how it was kept vague because it doesn't matter who is on what side to the people living through it.
  • The power of stories is a huge theme throughout the book.  We spent a lot of time talking about it.  It was neat because it is a topic we would leave and then find ourselves returning to.  I have compiled all of the comments relating to this theme here:
    • The power of stories is very strong.  Natalia realizes this with the sick diggers she encounters.  At first she is angry that they are eschewing her help as a doctor to cure their ill family because they believe the only way to get better is to find and exhume the body of a dead relative.  As the book nears its conclusion, Natalia has realized that the power of their story is important and she honors it by volunteering to do the final right in their folklore, but she asks if she respects their heritage, they should respect her medicine and all come to the clinic the next day.
    • We saw this as Natalia's epiphany for the entire narrative.  We have a book filled with all of these stories, interspersed throughout Natalia's story of the book's present.  While it was jarring to read at times, we saw these stories that she kept recalling as her process of coming to terms with the power of stories in all of our lives.
    • A few of us mentioned that some of the problems we had with the novel might be rooted in the East vs West differences in storytelling.  The area in which the book is set very much straddles the East-West divide, and as a result, so too does her storytelling technique.
    • We talked about the balance between family stories and the truth.  In an interview, the author said that stories are how we deal with reality in Balkan culture, and that we fully expect that our stories will eventually become myth.  Many people in the room wanted the stories contained within the novel to be "true," and were upset that they were too exaggerated to be so.  I did have to gently remind them that we cannot expect truth since the entire book was a work of fiction.  This got some chuckles, but it is a testament to Obreht's writing that the world she created was so real that many participants got upset with the exaggerations.
    • One participant who does a lot of genealogy said that when you hear a family story you should assume that 90% is not true.
    • The grandfather's stories of his life in a small village as a child and the winter of the tiger's wife make up a huge part of the story, but it is also said that the villagers continued to tell those stories for generations.  It was their mythology.
  • Ah, the title: The Tiger's Wife.  The title refers to the story Natalia's grandfather told her about his childhood and a particularly terrible winter when a tiger escaped from the zoo and lived in the woods above his isolated village.  This story is the backbone of this novel.  In the beginning when we first encounter the story it is through Natalia's retelling of the first time her grandfather told her the story.  They were on one of their frequent trips to the zoo to see the tiger and Natalia thought the story was going to be a fairytale featuring her. The story itself is completely unveiled throughout the course of the novel in snippets that also include tangential forays into the back stories of the lives of the secondary characters in a story-- you can now see where some people's complaints about confusion come into play. So it is more than just the grandfather's tale of his childhood.  Natalia is coming to terms with his death during the novel, and her recounting of the tale to us, is part of her healing process.
  • But we also talked about the title as more than just a reference to this story. One person said she felt as if the entire novel was told from more of an animal perspective than human.  Another asked who the Tiger and/or the Tiger's wife were in the novel.  We talked about the grandfather as the loner Tiger, which is why he connects the most with the Tiger in the story. The deaf mute girl is called the Tiger's wife, but Natalia does make that mention of thinking it could also be her.  One participant said it could still be her; or more specifically, the author herself (whom Natalia seems to be similar to in some ways).  The deaf mute girl was an outsider living away from her homeland; the author too is an outsider, living away from her homeland.  And like the deaf mute girl, someone noted, all that moving around as a child probably made the author feel like a deaf mute-- unable to fully communicate.  There is no way she got command of all the languages for all of the countries she lived in during the 5 year period from 7-12 when she was bouncing around the world.
  • The grandfather's copy of The Jungle Book also came up in reference to the Tiger. We talked about his love of the book, his relationship with the Apothecary who gave it to him (which led to a discussion of the apothecary's role in the death of the Tiger's Wife and then his own death, but these discussions go into too much plot details to recount here; just know those are good discussions areas.)  And of course, we discussed at length the bet the grandfather made with the Deathless Man for possession of this prized book, and the reappearance of the Deathless Man throughout his life as the Deathless Man keeps asking for him to pay his debt.
  • If the Tiger's Wife story is the backbone to the novel, the story of the Deathless Man is its heart. We also described this story as the river that winds through the book. In fact, I noted that I was surprised the book's title did not refer to the Deathless Man story rather than the Tiger's Wife story because in my reading the Deathless Man is more important.  I don't want to give away the story because watching this one unfold was liked by everyone in the group.  Every time he returned, we all loved those scenes.  But why is he there?  Here are some of the responses:
    • He is symbolic-- he gave the grandfather something to believe in at the beginning of his career as a doctor dealing with death all the time.
    • Stories themselves are "deathless." The book drives this point home a lot.  When characters die, their stories are still told.  They give people the hope to continue through bad times.
    • The Deathless Man is the guy I want to come for me when it is my time to go, someone shared.  He will help me come to terms with death.
    • We liked his sense of humor.  Although he has been punished with a curse of being unable to die, he is trying to do the best he can to help people meet their own death.
  • At the end, when Natalia goes to the place where her grandfather died, she surmises that he went there, knowing his cancer was at the end stages and was looking to meet the Deathless Man.  She feels she finds her proof because the Jungle Book is gone.  Her grandfather paid his debt to the Deathless Man and could pass over to the other side now. It also gives her the chance to reflect on how important the story of the Deathless Man was to her grandfather and herself.  This gives her the strength to help the superstitious diggers and honor their stories.
  • As we were on this line of discussion, one person said that this entire book was written as Natalia's grieving process which is why it jumped around so much.  We all were intrigued and talked this out some more.  The novel is about her coming to terms with her grandfather's death.  We are in her head as she works through it.  This is why the book is non-linear.  The grieving process does not go in a straight line.
  • Finally the words or phrases to sum up this complex novel:
    • war
    • storytelling
    • family
    • death
    • myth
    • house of mirrors (there is one in one of the secondary character's side stories that someone pointed out is also a metaphor for the entire novel)
    • superstition
    • hodgepodge
    • confusion
    • accepting death
    • mourning
    • symbolic
Readalikes: A participant said the episodic nature of the book reminded her of when we read One Amazing Thing back in November. Click through to see details. In that post I have a few other readalike suggestions including Bel Canto and The Samurai's Garden that are also good suggestions for fans of The Tiger's Wife.

Another book I have read with an Eastern setting and a granddaughter-grandfather relationship that I think is a good readalike is The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.  Again click here for my review.

A few other reading suggestions I found via NoveList are:
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway which also focuses on the perspectives of different characters in the same setting.
  • Alice Hoffman is a critically acclaimed writer of magical realism.  I thought of her while I was reading Obreht's novel.  I think many of her books would work as a readalike suggestion.  NoveList suggest The Red Garden which tells the history of a single town in a series of 14 stories.  It might be a different place than Obreht's but it has a similar feel and level of detail.
  • If you want novels set during the Balkan War try Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust by Jospi Novakovich which explores the war and its aftermath through the perspectives of characters from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia or The Goat Bridge by T.M. McNally which follows a war correspondent dealing with grief who finds himself in Sarajevo during the siege.
Finally, for what its worth, since Obreht's style is so unique I think it is useful to see her influences. Among those that she has mentioned in press interviews are the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Yugoslav Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, Isak Dinesen, and the children's writer Roald Dahl.

We will meet a week late next month due to the President's Day holiday.

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