Author: Téa Oberht.
Publisher: Random House, 2011.
If you want to read a book in which a butcher beats his wife to a bloody pulp and is then punished for it, you can probably find dozens of books of that genre in any library or book store. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, life disappoints, man beats girl, man is punished…or not, as the case may be. That’s it. No deep analytical discussion of why he did it. But if you want to first learn the tragic story behind how the man became a lowly butcher, rather than the musician he dreamt of being, and why his disappointment in this turn in his life, and in the girl he was tricked into marrying, made him a wife beater, read The Tiger’s Wife. And be prepared to hear that story told in the most beautiful way that will leave you heart broken for both this unfortunate man and his helpless, very young, wife.
And, too, I am sure there are books involving a taxidermist, but I am pretty sure they won’t touch your heart the way the story of Dariša does when Téa Obreht tells you how he came to be the lost soul known as “Dariša, the bear.” You will learn that he started his life as the son of a wealthy man, left to help care for his epileptic sister, whom he loved dearly, whose seizures turned him into a boy constantly roaming their home, all night, every night, looking for death in every corner. And how he grew to become the hunter a whole village saw as the savior capable of saving them from the much feared tiger.
Set in the Balkans over a span of many years, from before World War I to almost present day, these stories are collected by the principal character, narrator Natalia Stefanovic. She is a young doctor who lives with her mother, grandmother and grandfather in an unnamed city in the early 2000’s. But it was as a teenager that she first heard, from her grandfather, of these many unbelievable tales, when war returned to the Balkans.
Now in her twenties, she is traveling with a fellow doctor to inoculate orphans in a town across the new border formed when her country was torn apart by the war. Here she is amazed to find a group of people digging holes in the woods, day and night. They are hunting for the buried remains of a relative, who died without having had the proper rites performed, which they believe is the cause of the terrible sickness that has struck the village. They are of the belief that if they can find that lost corpse they can right the wrong that was done and remove the curse from the village.
As she is traveling to the village, she gets a call from her grieving grandmother informing her that her grandfather has died somewhere in the region. And she begins to learn that many of the tales her grandfather told her were not fairy tales, but stories of actual characters who had lived in her grandfather’s birth place. It is then that she recalls the touching and fascinating stories of Dariša, the bear, the Deathless Man, and the Tiger’s Wife.
What makes this beautifully written novel especially amazing, is that the author is only twenty-seven years old and this is her first published book. Anyone reading it without knowing anything about its writer would assume it was written by a much older and more seasoned author. Her insight into her characters is that of someone with much greater life experience. Her prose, at times, seems more like poetry. Though many who read this book will say that the stories are only myths, Obreht, in an interview, points out that reality itself, after many years, as events are embellished, becomes funneled into the world of myth.
In many of my past reviews I have said, “This book will not take the place of other, well loved, favorites on your bookshelf.” For me, at least, The Tiger’s Wife will, indeed, join those special few I have cherished through the years. It will be a book that I will be quick to recommend to discerning readers, those who are looking for a story they can savor like a fine wine. Each page will give its reader the pleasure of seeing just the right words placed in perfect juxtaposition to one another to describe emotion, scenery, actions, and effect in a way that can only be achieved by a master story teller.
Diane Bostick has lived on Marco Island since 1987. She was the Founder and President of Ft. Myers chapter of the Association of Children with Learning Disabilities, President of Jr. Welfare League, Ft. Myers Chapter, and served on the board of Art League of Marco Island. She is an avid reader, fly fisherwoman, tennis player and crafter.