With the gushing acknowledgement of her debut novel – 2011 Orange Prize, 2011 National Book Award finalist, enthusiastic thumbs up from the New Yorker, New York Times, and too many starred reviews to count – Téa Obreht is already a renowned wunderkind.
Always curious about that level of fuss, I finally picked up the novel, and stuck it into my ears (narrated by veteran audible regulars Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs). Perhaps that’s where I went wrong … perhaps this is fiction meant only to be read, not listened to. Still, I’m compelled to out myself as quite possibly the only person on the planet who thinks the overwhelming hype surrounding Tiger’s Wife is more hyperbole than substance.
Here’s the story – three, actually, to be more precise: 1. Young Dr. Natalia takes a detour from her work at an orphanage across the border to collect the few belongings of her beloved grandfather who has unexpectedly died far from home; 2. Natalia’s grandfather shares his memories of “the deathless man,” a mysterious stranger who never aged and, no matter what, could never die; and 3. Natalia uncovers her grandfather’s childhood tale of the abused, deaf, mute woman known as ‘the tiger’s wife.’
So here’s what I ultimately got from the cleverly intertwining narrative strands: wunderkind Obreht (born in 1985, making her barely in her mid-20s) has no problem putting together gorgeous, mellifluous sentences. She will, without a shadow of a doubt, write even more amazing, more accomplished books in the years to come. But my bottom line … in spite of the gorgeous prose and the epic stories, Tiger’s Wife in the end, just didn’t move me.
No characters stood out as spectacular, in spite of the spectacular things that happened to many of them. The remembrances of things past – especially of war and the price of survival – felt too distanced and detached to resonate. Natalia’s grandmother is too shrill, her mother strangely absent, Natalia too self-absorbed in her endless ruminations about what might or might not be happening. Even the mythic characters of her grandfather’s childhood – the eponymous tiger’s wife, her desperately abusive husband, the legendary bear man, the wandering apothecary – hardly lived up to their potential uniqueness.
Perhaps three stories in one were too much for one novel. Which only proves Obreht must have the imagination for many more. My current disappointment aside, for now the waiting begins for what is surely to come …