Title: The Tiger's Wife
Author: Tea Obreht
Publisher: Random House Audio
Publication Date: March 8, 2011
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library
Plot Summary from Goodreads:
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.
Where to begin with this audiobook? It's beautiful, and metaphorical, and confusing, and illusory, all at once. Leaves me in quite a pickle when trying to write a concise review, eh?
I should start by telling you that when I picked up this audiobook, I only read the first two paragraphs of the above description. (As we know, I often don't read them at all...so this was quite the big step for me.) As such, I was thrown off guard when the novel took a bit of a fantastical turn--specifically, when Natalia's grandfather started telling her the story of the "deathless man". The beginning of the book is steeped in the gritty reality of the Balkan War and its aftermath, so this change in atmosphere was unexpected.
However, I found myself intrigued and kept on with the book. It helped that the narrators have such wonderful voices. Susan Duerden, the voice of Natalia, has a soft and lyrical way of speaking that gives real life to the magical realism of the story. And Robin Sachs (the voice of Natalia's grandfather) has a gruff manner that is extremely fitting for his role. Probably one of the best narrator choices for an audiobook that I've heard, ever.
The ending rather confused me, and I think a big part of this was because I was listening to, rather than reading, the novel. The ending takes an unexpected turn as Natalia reaches conclusions about her grandfather's death, and with all the fairy-tale-like aspects that are included, it made it very hard for me to keep track of what was going on. It was only after the book ended, when I Googled some analyses of it, that I had a better understanding of what had occurred. One of those analyses (over at Biblio Quill) stated that this is a book best read a second time, once you understand the themes involved--and I think that is spot on. I didn't have a full understanding of the meaning of "the tiger's wife" and "the deathless man" until after the story had reached its end, and I had time to process/research it. If I had had a print copy of the novel, I may have been able to go back and reference things more easily, thus making the reading experience more satisfying as a whole.
Overall, I was impressed by the storytelling abilities of Tea Obreht (and this was her debut novel--even more noteworthy!). She weaves together a captivating tale that will draw you in quickly. I would just suggest that you have a heads-up about the "magical" aspects of the story before you begin, so that you have a smoother reading experience than I did. I would also suggest reading this one, rather than listening to it (especially if you listen to your audiobooks as you commute, like I do). The narrators are truly fantastic, but the structure of the story just did not lend itself to the disjointed way that I listen to audiobooks. You really need to concentrate on this one to do it justice.
Other reviews of The Tiger's Wife:
Melissa' Eclectic Bookshelf
What are your favorite picks in the "magical realism" genre?