As I went to Waterstone’s to ask for a copy of the 2011 Orange Prize Winner, the shop assistant rather anxiously informed me that they only had three copies to begin with and that these copies had all sold out within a day; all because the publisher (I was filled with sympathy) was in-between hardback and paperback the moment the novel was announced as the winner. It seemed even those working at the Orion Books imprint Phoenix had not been betting on Téa Obreht to scoop the top award.
Born in the former Yugoslavia and now residing in New York, twenty-five year old Obreht’s debut seemed to be (on paper) the underdog of the competition. Especially when placed alongside the much lauded Room by experienced author Emma Donoghue. But Obreht outshone her fellow competitors. Her debut, The Tiger’s Wife, follows the young medical student Natalia as she copes with the loss of her grandfather, retracing his mysterious journey to the village of Zdrevkov in the war-torn districts of former Yugoslavia. The narrative is split between the contemporary and politically-charged landscape which Natalia inhabits, and the fairy-tale childhood of her grandfather and his fables. One of which is the tale of the Tiger’s Wife, a deaf-mute teenager who - as the name suggests - forms a strange attachment to an escaped big cat, roaming the outskirts of her village. The other haunting tale is of ‘the deathless man’, a strange tale which never really fades from the mind.
The novel centers on the art of fables: the type of narrative which brings together philosophical, moral and fantastical elements. A master of language, Obreht moves perfectly between the sterner colloquialisms of Natalia’s narrative; and the slower, poetic realm of her grandfather’s storytelling.
Everything necessary to understand my grandfather 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 of his life (...) One, which I learnt after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told me, is of how he became a child again.
The testament to her maturity as a writer does not reside in the use of language alone. It is her approach to politics which is the most startling and impressive. Of course, having had those experiences first-hand which Natalia describes in the novel, one can expect that Obreht will be able to tell that personal history of living in Yugoslavia at that time; a personal history which is unknown to most readers. And yet, Obreht distances herself from the ‘Balkan war’. The city in which Natalia and her grandfather live at the beginning is simply referred to as ‘the City’. Borders are called borders, without reference to what they may be bordering. Geographical names are spurned, and all we are left with is a sense of something shifting, a country in danger: troops, the war-injured, bombings, border controls where there were none before, civil unrest - but Obreht does not lay anything bare, does not say which side or which people, and not once is the country’s name mentioned. You are left guessing only by the clue in her biography and in the names of villages and small towns. In one episode, Natalia’ grandfather recounts to her how he has a long dinner on a balcony in a besieged town, watching the anonymous troops closing in as he tucks into a meal of lobster:
I sit down and listen to them down in Marhan. Every few minutes this blue blast lights up the hilltops at the crown of the valley, and a few seconds later comes the cracking sound of the artillery. There’s a southerly breeze blowing down to me through the valley, and it brings in the singed smell of gunpowder....At this moment, the old waiter comes back, bringing with him my bottle. It’s an ’88 Šalimač from a famous vineyard which will soon be on our side of the border.
This un-naming of the political situation only serves to bring it to the foreground, creating a blank space in the text into which a reader stumbles. It reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut A Pale View of the Hills, which follows the destruction of Nagasaki in 1945, but only talks of it in passing (‘the rubble’, ‘after what happened’). Unlike Ishiguro, Obreht does not limit herself to naturalism. The novel straddles the fantastic and the real, opening it to comparisons with the ever-compared-to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; incidentally one of Obreht’s most admired authors. It is here where the novel falls short and where the youth of Obreht’s voice is detrimentally revealed. It owes a lot to these voices: Marquez, Isabel Allende, Jose Donoso. It owes, perhaps, a little too much. Sentences such as these - “Luka was the sixth of a seventh son, born just shy of being blessed, and this ‘almost-luck’ sat on his shoulders all his life” - for me announce themselves as ‘magic realist’. The lengthy character-driven expulsions of slightly eccentric mannerisms, and the at-times heavily overwritten lines (The God of Small Things knocks) is the very opposite of the kind of sparse, do-it-for-the-plot style favoured by some of the other entries.
Is it because the reviewers and critics have not read a Marquez for quite some time that their enthusiasm for the genre is re-invigorated with The Tiger’s Wife? If you were looking for originality, then Room would have won the Orange Prize without question. I am left thinking that The Tiger’s Wife, stylistically speaking, is rather a conservative option. There is a small, cheeky and suspicious part of me that suggests that, like the Young Musician of the Year, the jury can’t quite forget that Téa Obreht is twenty-five. In the end, you will be more astounded by a eleven-year-old playing the Bruch Concerto in G then you will be an eighteen-year-old, regardless of which rendition is the better one. You want to forget that aspect - it shouldn’t come into it at all - but it’s impossible to ignore the surprise of her age.
Despite the fact that the book recalls too closely the voices of her literary heroes, The Tiger’s Wife is a beautiful, lyrical and impressive debut; made more so by the promise of what’s to come. According to her website, Obreht is already working on her second novel. I wonder whether, as time goes by, she will let go of her debt to Marquez and Allende, and begin to write entirely in her own, uninterrupted and powerful narrative voice.