Funny how when you first hear about a book, it’s not even about the book per se, or the critical acclaim the book’s getting—but the dubiousness of the goodness of the book. “No one could like a book that much, something’s up!” was pretty much what filtered down to me about The Tiger’s Wife, the debut novel of virtual unknown [until her Watcha doing there? inclusion in the 20 Under 40 New Yorker list] Téa Obreht.
Curiosity, and my actually liking what I was hearing made me pick up the book. And when I did, I realized that I didn’t even know what the book was about. Something about tigers, it’s safe to assume. Or was it all metaphorical? The dust jacket didn’t help much—whoever made the copy breathlessly crammed all enticements into those skinny columns. So. Something about tigers—real ones—something about grandfathers, something about mysterious deaths, something about stories.
There is so much within these pages, I was warned repeatedly. And, yes, too true: I was fascinated by this novel, gripped by the near-mythical events that only lore-tinged narratives can accomplish—but I took away nothing coherent. That is, if someone asked me what the book was about, I would have no choice but to say, “See, there’s this, well, I really can’t say it neatly.” That is, “Holy pandas, I have no fucking clue.” That is, “Oh, I like it well enough, but please don’t ask me what it was about—what it’s supposed to be about, what it’s supposed to accomplish.”
That is, “There’s a tiger in there somewhere. I think.”
Still. Despite the near-constant overwhelm-age, the greatest strength of The Tiger’s Wife lies in the stories it contains. Or, rather, the stories its characters tell, encounter, live. Once, there was a girl who loved a tiger so much she bore its child. Once, a deathless man roamed the earth to drink coffee with the dying. Once, a musician married the wrong woman and so he went home to become a butcher. Once, a girl and her best friend drove for four hours to smuggle a skull across the border. Once, a young woman battled a fire on top of a hill, while her grandfather did his fighting down the slope. Once, a grandfather would watch the caged tigers in the zoo, while a copy of The Jungle Book balanced on his knee.
These stories draw you in, their richness. Even Obreht’s so-so language is made better by the lushness of what they attempt to evoke. The prose paled for me, I found it blah—no conscious tempering or restraint or purpling or any other self-aware manipulation of the language: it just didn’t deliver. I am not a fan of how Obreht writes—add the thoughtless, haphazard structure—but I am of what she has chosen to write about.
[I wonder, though, if these myths and this kind of storytelling draw on the culture from whence Obreht came. (Lordy, I said whence.) There’s a distinct voice to the narrative, and I don’t know whether to credit that and the images that abound to Obreht herself or the folkloric and literary traditions of her culture.]
Because of the wealth of stories, this novel wanders. And it’s not any cheeky experimentation of structure—it feels like absentminded narrative construction to me. Yes, digressions are an element of storytelling, and Obreht takes advantage of this—to a fault. People we have fallen in love with get lost in the muddle. People we barely notice are given chapters upon chapters. My initial fascination flagged here and there. The last hundred pages were a boring experience where I tried so hard to pay attention—I didn’t care about this new batch of stories, I didn’t care about this people. I wanted Obreht to start paying what she owed me.
There’s nothing clever about the non-answers. It just pointed to a lack of commitment, a focus lost. It was a loss of control, that the stories took over. It was annoying, and more than a little irritating. As much as I enjoyed the first part of the novel—the promises it gave—toward the end, the apparent clumsiness just got on my nerves.
Ya know, I like being told stories—especially the more captivating ones offered here—but I do appreciate a sense of coherence, I appreciate feeling secure in an author’s capacity to control her work. I need for her to have sense of the bigger picture. In this case, the episodic myths can be forgiven, so can the lackluster prose—but, ya know, eventually, you’ve got to step up and own up and deliver. You have to confidently tell the reader, “Look, we’ve been all over the place, but this is what it leads to, what it’s been creating all along. Ain’t it sweet?”
I didn’t get that, ultimately, from this novel. Which is a pity, because dagnammit, for those first pinch of pages, I was crazy in love with it.
I’m being grumpy again, aren’t I? But, hopefully, not a cranky miser: See, I still like The Tiger’s Wife—those stories! [I’m sorry!] I’m quite certain, though, that Obreht will write again—if anything of the author makes itself known in this novel, it’s that sheer joy of writing the reader senses—and I really hope she blows my socks off then.
PSA: I saw the bright yellow paperback international edition of The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht over at the Cubao branch of National Bookstore.