The Tiger’s Wife is a novel about how fear destroys the hope of innocence and how we can return to innocence through belief in the extraordinary. The novel’s narrator is Natalia, but the central figure in the book is Natalia’s grandfather, who has just died as the book begins. The death of her grandfather leads Natalia through recollections of her life with him and the stories he told her, and, even more importantly, the one story, the story of the tiger’s wife, that he chose not to tell her, because (as he explains at one point) some stories cannot be shared. The layered tales that unfold with her grandfather’s death are the heart of the book, but each story ultimately shares the same endpoint—a loss of innocence and hope that is or must be restored. The stories themselves and their sophisticated and subtle interweaving is masterful, but the true mastery of Obreht is demonstrated in her ability to tell those stories in clear and lucid prose that spools almost directly from her heart and mind into the hearts and minds of her readers. I am agog.
What I am about to describe to you will spoil the story if you intend to read it, but those of you who read this review and analysis and then decide to read it will still see the beauty of the novel and its quiet simplicity. Read on if you will, but be warned that I will give away key elements of the novel and even the ending.
For those of you still with me, let me begin by mentioning just a few of the stories contained within this glorious novel. The overarching story is of Natalia who has just lost her grandfather and her recollections of him—mainly of his love for The Jungle Book (he has carried a special edition with him his entire life) and their shared weekly excursions to the zoo where their focus was always the tigers. In Natalia’s life she has journeyed to an orphanage to inoculate children. In the same village a group of visitors have come to dig for the bones of a decade-dead relative in the hopes that restoring his body to proper burial will keep a strange sickness from taking away their children. Natalia’s hosts have lost a son to the war that has raged for most of her life. Underneath Natalia’s recollections of her grandfather are his stories of his repeated encounters with a deathless man, the nephew of Death, who is cursed to live forever, and therefore cursed to live without hope—without life or death. Upon their first meeting the grandfather loses a wager with the deathless man, although he will not admit it, and his precious Jungle Book is forfeit.
Running like a river of truth through these other tales is the most compelling story of all—that of Natalia’s grandfather at ten years old and the village of Galina where the deaf-mute battered wife of the butcher secretly welcomes a zoo-born and war-escaped tiger into her heart and changes the fates of herself, the village, and Natalia’s grandfather. The tiger is a potent symbol of the deaf-mute girl’s isolation from the village and her strength. The grandfather’s love for the tiger and the girl (the two loves are one and cannot be separated even in his mind) and the loss of his innocence when the tiger’s wife, as she comes to be known, must die by his own hand to spare her an horrific death at the hands of the fearful villagers surrounding them shapes his entire life. His life after her death (which is only revealed slowly and with the most terrific suspense and quiet foreboding) is a turning away from hope and faith and belief in magic and life after death. Even the village where he grew up is turning away from the magic and hope of innocence toward fear—fear of war mostly, but they turn it into fear of the tiger and the tiger’s wife. This turning away from belief in the extraordinary toward the more adult-like fear of reality results in the eventual death of the village.
Each and every story woven throughout this novel is the same story told in different ways—a loss of hope as people become adults and a seeking for that hope and the innocence of childhood again. Early in the book, the grandfather tells Natalia when she enters medical school in his footsteps that watching children die is horrible because men die in fear but children die as they live-in hope. It is the theme that unites every thread of this magnificent book—the theme of restoration of innocence and hope, as her grandfather finds again before his death by finally, as Natalia assumes, meeting the deathless man one last time and giving up The Jungle Book to him—thereby admitting he believes that the man is as he says, deathless. The deathless man offers absolution for the guilt the grandfather has carried about the death of the tiger’s wife and her unborn child. The deathless man is the mora, the spirit caretaker of the dead. The grandfather can only make his offering, The Jungle Book he shared with the tiger’s wife, at the end of his life so that he might acknowledge his belief in the extraordinary and die like a child, in hope.
The book is a work of brilliance. I have considered that to truly appreciate it, it must be read again with the knowledge of the theme therefore apparent in every layer of story. For those of you who read this analysis and then decide to read the book, you will be rewarded.