I recently joined a new book discussion group, which I have been looking to do since I moved to Oregon. I belonged to 2 book discussion groups when I lived in Las Vegas, and I miss the camaraderie of connecting face-to-face with fellow bibliophiles and talking about the books I read — which almost always adds to my own interpretation of the book.
At tonight’s meeting, we discussed Téa Obreht’s 2011 novel The Tiger’s Wife.
Set in an unspecified Balkan country, the story is narrated by a 20-something woman named Natalia. Her grandfather has recently died and the story is largely told through flashbacks — jumping between the fairy tale-like stories her grandfather used to tell her of a tiger who lived near his childhood village and a deathless man he encountered at various stages in his life; Natalia’s childhood; and the present when Natalia is a young doctor, the same career path chosen by her grandfather so many years ago.
At its core, this is a story about death and survival. It is set in a region that has frequently been torn apart by war throughout recent history. One of the main characters has the ability to foresee others’ time and cause of death, yet curses his own immortality. Perhaps there is not much happiness in the story, yet the folkloric elements kept me from feeling overly sad when I read it.
At times this is a difficult book to follow. The story frequently shifts between distant past, further past and present, and oftentimes breaks away for a back story. The character list is lengthy as well, and there are many subtle connections between characters and plots that are not blatantly obvious.
During the book group meeting, we talked about the complexity of the story and the multiple layers of symbolism. I was surprised by how much I missed in my own reading. One woman from our group shared that she didn’t really understand the symbolism until her second reading of the book. Clearly this is not an easy read, but a novel to possible be re-read and re-evaluated. It has the potential to eventually be considered a classic work of literature.
It is hard to believe the author was only in her mid-20s when she published this novel. In some regards, she reminds me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another internationally-acclaimed novelist who achieved renown at a young age for her ability to beautifully build stories of tragedy and loss. I am curious to see what else she produces in what I hope will be a long writing career for her.