Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Holiday Review - The Tiger's Wife

Yesterday I told my nephew I was the Great White Whale and got him to chase me round the pool for an hour or so. I try to give him a proper grounding in the classics.

Anyway, here is another review! This time, it's The Tiger's Wife, by girl genius Tea Obreht. I know I have been bitter about her youthful success before, but now I have to say that, as far as this blog is concerned, Tea Obreht is hereby allowed to keep her Orange Prize. 

If she’d like, I’ll even re-award it to her (or a mocked-up printout version of it, anyway) in person, because after reading The Tiger’s Wife I’ve decided that Tea Obreht and I ought to be friends. We could go hang out in a pub together telling rude jokes and talking about how great we think Angela Carter is, and then we’d walk down the road and tell every dog we pass that they’re a dog! They’re a dog! What are they? They’re a dog! (The ‘You’re a dog!’ thing actually happens in the book, which delights me. This is a woman who has her priorities right.)

Animals, in The Tiger’s Wife, are a huge deal. Everyone gets described in relation to them – someone looks like a penguin, someone else like an owl – and there’s an entire village that spends its leisure hours drawing pictures of the same dog, over and over again. In the slightly off-kilter fairy-tale world of The Tiger’s Wife (it’s set in some never-named country in the Balkans, where there’s always a war on) animals are more than worth bothering about. When enemy planes begin to bomb the City’s zoo, its citizens turn out in force, wearing home-made animal costumes, and protect it by standing there all night holding up silly signs. 

There’s a brilliant, fun, rude sense of humour that runs all the way through The Tiger’s Wife, in the matter-of-fact way that superstitions are described (if you are ill, it’s because an unburied member of your family is cursing you, of course) as well as the sort of gleeful interest in people having bits chopped off that you find in all the best fairy tales. It’s a world of endless fascinating possibilities (a boy can walk into a barn at night and find a tiger there, a man can be shot in the head twice and then sit up and ask for water), a Chinese box of stories within stories, each one sharper and more beautiful than the last. 

There are three main strands to The Tiger’s Wife, all of them connected to the narrator Natalia’s grandfather – the story of his meeting with the Tiger’s Wife, the story of his friendship with the Deathless Man and the story of his own life and death, as told by Natalia herself. There’s not a tremendous amount of forward-moving plot, but the point is to be carried away by the stories themselves and the way they’re told. Although I'm pretty much always going to approve of anything which has animals, magic and fairy tales in it, I still think this is a stand-out both for the genre (if 'magic, fairy tales and animals' is a genre, which it should be) and for books in general. For me, The Tiger's Wife more than worked – in terms of sheer delight, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed anything this much for quite a while.

Tea Obreht obviously had a tremendous amount of fun writing The Tiger’s Wife, and huge fondness for her characters, and that shows through. And it helps, of course, that she can write disgustingly well. She’s created an extraordinarily vivid, weird and funny world and she absolutely deserves that Orange Prize of hers. And she’s only 25. What a cow. (Which I hope she would take as a compliment. Cows are actually rather nice).

4.5 stars.

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