The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht

11 Mar

This book was recommended by my local book club, the Bearwood Bookworms. I wasn’t too sure about the choice made as we’d only finished reading The Leopard (Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa) and someone had mentioned The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga).

There seemed to have been a big cat/feline theme going on…

I requested a copy from my local library and when I got home, I started to read it:

A young female doctor goes in search of her late grandfathers’ last resting place and his personal belongings. She describes her relationship with her grandfather, who was also a doctor, and the associated memories of him. This is interspersed with him telling her stories of his youth and his subsequent meetings with “the deathless man”.

The tiger of the novel is a relatively tamed species, which is kept in a zoo that the young doctor frequently visited with her granddad. manages to escape from a bombed zoo and in its attempt for survival, prowls the land in search of food and shelter. It is in one village that the tiger is seen, and “hunters” are dispatched to kill it. Unbeknownst to the local villagers, a deaf-mute woman, who also happens to be an “Outsider” finds a way to feed and care for the tiger. This leads to speculation, alienation and fabrication.

The story is interwoven with characters from different eras, but at the same time, the themes of desperation, survival, dying/death, fear and quality of life remains. There is uncertainty, trying to draw out fact from fiction, the question of cultural identity and the role of compassion and humanity in times of destruction.

I wouldn’t say he was a central character, but because he appears several times as a “constant”  throughout the novel, the “deathless man” has to have a mention as a very clever literary device. To me, the deathless man is symbolic of what the old doctor had known for most of his life: death which is known and unknown. For most of his young life, the doctor had either seen, heard or witnessed death. It was his experiences that drew him to try and help people and keep them alive. But it was also his knowledge of observing the signs and symptoms of death,  dying and the search for salvation that seemed to allow him to have pleasant conversations with the deathless man. Having the figure of the deathless man in the stories seemed to make the doctor, although sceptical and angry at the initial meeting, begin to develop  a relationship of some sorts over the years. Sporadic meetings allowed the doctor to question why the deathless man would come to him and what he gained from his visits. I think the deathless man represented the doctors own conscience, as he would look around during the war years and would question the futility of it all. It was at these times that the deathless man would appear and they would either argue or wrestle with what may be the consciousness.

The deathless man offers hope and preparation, not fear and uncertainty. He is a quietly strong, confident and practical being. In his own way, like the doctor, he offers salvation, resolution and peace. Maybe because the doctor has seen so much death in his time, that is why he would not accept it in a “lifeform!” It makes it more tangible and “real”. It is there, waiting and ready for everyone no matter what the circumstances.

Relationships are explored, either superficial or deep, loss and love are prominent in the telling of the search for the grandfather. Friendship, support and understanding are also key issues which Tea Obrecht explores with passion and instinct.

Having won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, I can now fully understand and appreciate why. The author draws you into a story within a story. Descriptive, seamless and enchanting, Obrecht relates the horrors of modern day wars with the wars of yesteryear. It was similar to The Book Thief ( Markus Zusak) and The Diary of Anne Frank but told through the style of The Arabian Nights. Full of sadness, melancholia, dark humour and shocking endings for some of the characters, it combined fables and folklore within communities bombarded by war, death, segregation, religion, superstition, fear and possibly ignorance.

My initial uncertainty was unfounded. It was an engrossing, page turner and at the end, I was overcome with the desire or wish to see this novel turned into a film. Every bookshelf ought to have a copy.

The Learned Kat

 

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