The Power of Imagination

Review of The Tiger’s Wife
By Téa Obreht           

Written by Katherine Gallagher
13 May, 2013

The Power of Imagination

In her novel The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht has eloquently embroidered an illustration of myth and realism into a world of kindness, distress, and unlikely characters that come to life with the illumination of each fable.  Her artistry allows the reader an opportunity to visit diverse imaginary places while her characters each have a past that erupts into the present construct of man, woman and beast.

The narrator of her novel is Natalia Stefanovic, a no-nonsense, science-driven, young doctor who is unwilling to consent to the superstition surrounding her.  She lives in a fictional Balkan city with her mother, grandmother and grandfather when, as she states, “the war started quietly, its beginning subdued by the decade we had spent on the precipice, waiting for it to come.”   Within this sentence is the construct of malevolence.  A constant threat can either frighten one to the point of catatonics; push one over the edge into non-belief, or anything in between.  Obreht intuitively describes fear in the older people and doubt in the young and when the inevitable does happen, no one is prepared for its onslaught.

As Natalia’s country is gradually demolished by war, it exacts a challenge to volunteer with the University’s United Clinic program.  On this goodwill mission to administer inoculations at an orphanage, she travels into Brejevina, where “…before the war, the people of Brejevina had been our people.”  The sorrow demonstrated is apparent while the grief is so faintly laced into those few words that rereading them is almost necessary.  Brejevina now lay across the border; a border resolved twelve years after the war to separate nationals that were once one.

After learning of her beloved grandfather’s death in the obscure city of Zdrevkova, she sets out to retrieve his personal belongings.  His copy of The Jungle Book, a treasure he carried in the breast pocket of his jacket throughout his life, has become the object of her skepticism about the circumstances surrounding his death.  On her quest for the truth, she inadvertently pieces together bits of his life that she either knew from his own words or from the legends that formed around him.

Her pursuit takes her to her grandfather’s childhood home, the village of Galina, a community swathed in parables.  As Natalia’s journey crosses into this world, her understanding of the superstitions surrounding the village becomes the focus of an unraveling of what she once believed to be fairy-tales.    In the village she encounters a modern day family digging around a hillside looking for the grave of a relative who was not allowed a proper burial, thereby placing a curse on their lineage.  They believe the cure for their current ailments is the performance of a necessary ritual rather than medical attention.  Natalia cannot persuade them otherwise, and so begins the mingling of reality and folklore.  Obreht’s use of this intriguing tale charmed my interest, and as I planted one foot into this spell of enchantment, the other was struggling for solid ground.

Memories reveal times of Natalia and her grandfather visiting the zoo to see the tigers, and later of a chaotic city with a zoo in ruins.  A memory of walking with her grandfather in the dead of night to an undisclosed destination along the city streets resulted in her first glimpse of an elephant that had been abandoned and near death at a former circus site.  The elephant was being tempted by a young man to follow him to the zoo, and about “…how, despite everything, despite closure and bankruptcy, the zoo director said bring him in, bring him in and eventually the kids will see him.”  My mind revealed a sobering picture of an elephant, a superb being of great stature, of intelligence and understanding, a creature of power, now dependant and still trusting while surrounded by brutality.  The rescue was a poignant moment, a bittersweet moment, a moment that lingered like a taste in the mouth that neither repels nor satisfies.

Her grandfather then proceeds to tell her a story, a story as equally unbelievable as an elephant walking down the empty street of a ruined town in the middle of the night; the story of the deathless man.  This story coupled with another of a tiger and his struggle for survival lays the foundation for the magic that will unfold during her search for answers about her grandfather’s death and the mysteries surrounding his life.

With background information delicately put into place, the reader can empathize with the cruelty the characters display and come to appreciate their intricate involvement with the evolution of human emotions, both individually and universally. Crisscrossing between past and present and myth and reality, the richness of this novel and its timeless revelations brings the plot, and all its subplots, to a subtle finish without an end.

Obreht’s imagination prevails as an inspiration to readers who choose to believe in the magic of narrative even while squaring off with actuality itself.  Life and death are cyclical and wholly expected, but legends rob death of its finality and with this, immortality can share a place among the ordinary.   As for me, I choose to believe in the magic of The Tiger’s Wife.

Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel The Tiger’s Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in New York.

Katherine Gallagher holds an MA International Marine Policy and is currently a Marine Science Educator. She has over 20 years experience as an international musician, composer, lyricist, and recording artist.  Additionally, she began a publishing company and opened a music store where she was co-owner and co-builder of stringed musical instruments.  Katherine will be joining her daughter, Delaney Walker—a current student in fiction in Sierra Nevada College’s MFA program—this August.  Katherine is looking forward to working with the fabulous variety of authors and students in the program.

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