Creative writing courses can be controversial: ‘institutionalized creativity’–doesn’t that sound like an oxymoron? And what about the standardised fiction they write in these courses: isn’t that technically smooth, but stone cold dead? Well, then The Tiger’s Wife might come as a big surprise!
Téa Obreht, the winner of the 2011 Orange prize for Fiction, wrote The Tiger’s Wife while she was on Cornell University’s creative writing course. That was three years ago and she was 22 years young back then. It’s good I only found that out after reading the book; trying to swallow my envy of a Wunderkind would have made my reading much less enjoyable than it was.
I really loved this book.
What is it all about? For the Guardian The Tiger’s Wife investigates “that mythical place once called Yugoslavia”. And myths play indeed a central role in the book. Towards the end (p312), Obreht writes about the apothecary, one of the minor characters whose full life story we hear:
He learned, too, that when confounded by the extremes of life–whether good or bad–people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.
Superstition — a main theme. War is a constant background in The Tiger’s Wife and the people in the Balkan villages and cities turn to superstition to make sense of it all and keep their spirits up: No, we are not suffering from tuberculosis, we are haunted by the ghost of someone who wasn’t decently buried. If we find his body, the disease will go away.
Unconnected events, stitched together — the other main theme. The Tiger’s Wife is full of stories within stories: of the narrator and her grandfather, of her job as a doctor and his childhood, of the tiger and its wife, of the musical butcher, of the taxidermist bear-man … and many others.
All in all, The Tiger’s Wife is pretty convoluted, but fascinating once you are immersed into it — which for me was by page 2.