Thursday, May 3, 2012

Meeting Notes: The Tiger's Wife

Our last book was The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. We met at Bess's house for Sangria and bruscetta.

Kayla wore her awesome tiger shirt, complete with a braided tail on the back.

Sassy, right?

Here is Bess's summary of our reaction to the book:

Honestly, the bookworms were ambivalent about the much-praised The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht. Book-clubber Melisa had read an online review that said the book was boring. It may have tainted her read, but she had to keep asking herself, "Am I bored?" though the answer turned out to be no, not exactly. I also read a review, in the Guardian, and a line it ("[A]fter meeting innumerable exotic characters, it dawned on me that the back-stories stand in for a story, and style stands in for emotion.") ran through my head again and again while reading. At the same time, I'd say this book gave the bookworms so many things to talk about and, I would say, resulted in one of our best discussions yet. In my opinion, it's a fantastic book with layers and layers of meaning, one you can't understand fully on the first reading--but it lacks a strong central story that keeps readers engaged.

The story is about a young doctor whose beloved grandfather, also a doctor, has just died. His death was expected (by her at least), but it occurred in a strange town hundreds of miles from his home. Rather than openly mourning, she privately decides to figure out what he was doing in that town and why. She accepts a short-term medical position in a town "across the border" as she embarks on this emotional journey. While there, she confronts the reality of her country's political and cultural situation while also learning more about her grandfather, and the political and cultural forces that shaped his world.

The Tiger's Wife is really a story about a region ravaged by a seemingly never-ending war and the effect that has on generations of people. The main character learns regional folktales as she goes as she remembers stories her grandfather told her, and the one thing these stories have in common is war. As a result, the effect of war becomes one of the central themes of the novel. One line stood out to me: "When your fight has purpose--to free you from something, to interfere on behalf of an innocent--it has hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling--when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event--there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed on it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it." She obviously believes her country's wars are of the latter variety, and the result is mistrust, confusion, disallusionment, and meanness of spirit ... but hope seems to remain.

Another central theme covered is whether a history book is a more accurate representation of history than a person who lived through the events in question. Obreht never gives the name of her country, the names of surrounding countries, or the names of the leaders who initiated the violence. We decided this must be because she doesn't want to be responsible for giving us a history lesson, but instead wants to share what it felt like for real people to live through several periods of peace and war. Knowing that the author lived in Serbia until age 12 allows you to surmise that she's talking about that region of the world. That's a nice thing to know when reading, but you do understand the author's message without knowing the locale. A connected question is what is more real, our beliefs about reality or the physical laws of the universe. Obreht shares a lot of unbelievable stories: a deathless man; a tiger who lives quietly beside a small village; the tiger's wife, a young woman who is able to befriend the tiger. The narrator never says if she believes the stories or not. She just lets them sit there for us to decide. We thought this got at the power that stories have for people. The narrator goes on to say, "It's possible to reduce the tiger's attachment to some predictable accident of nature, to make him as mysterious as a bear rummaging through a pile of overturned trash cans--but that is not my grandfather's tiger; that is not the tiger on whose account my grandfather carriedThe Jungle Book in his pocket every day for the rest of his life, the tiger my grandfather kept at his side during the war, and the long year he and Mother Vera struggled in the City...." Her grandfather needed to believe the story of the tiger. I think it reminded him that humans, animals, and even nature can survive terrible things, even when those terrible things are piled upon us--not always and not indefinitely, but it is possible.

Toward the end of the night, Courtney said, "I like everything you guys are saying right now." I think that sums up our experience of the book. It was interesting to read, and even more interesting to think and talk about.


  1. sounds like a good book-club read.i've heard lots about it-i think i'll pick it up this summer when i'm back in the UK


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