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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

As a child growing up, it was customary for Natalia to walk with her tiger's wifephysician grandfather to the hill top zoo in their town.  Years later, he dies suddenly in a village some distance away.  Natalie has to confront the reality of his passing, and the wrath of her grandmother, who is mad at Natalia for withholding information about his final illness.

Natalia is now a doctor herself, en route to another coastal town with a friend and colleague.  It’s the aftermath of the Balkan Wars, and they are on their way to vaccinate a group of orphans at a monastery there.  Apparently, the town her grandfather died in is a short distance away, and he had some personal effects that Natalia intends to collect, if anything, to placate her grandmother.

As they deal with the challenges at the town, Natalie recollects memories of her grandfather, particularly the stories he would tell her of his growing up years – strange enough things for a skeptical man of medicine.  The re-occurring figures were a man who doesn’t die and an abused married teenager who befriends a tiger that is loose near a remote hamlet during the World War II years.  Both people make lasting impressions on the grandfather – the tiger’s wife when he was a young boy, and the deathless man, whom the grandfather meets several times.

The Tiger’s Wife is a meditative novel that jumps several time periods.  War frames most of the novel, whether it pertains to the German occupation of the 1940s or the conflicts of the 1990s.  You get the feeling that most of the people in the book, even in the latter day “peace”, are in a state of shock.

The author writes well, but don’t look for a straight forward narrative.  There’s plenty of meandering between past and present, and this structure gives the book an unsettled, dreamlike state.  Do read it, though – it’s helpful to read about how people maintain sanity in very unstable situations, whether it’s a heavily-bombed city, or a tiny town cut off by the elements, with a very large cat as visitor.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


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