Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Tiger's Wife

In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old.

Among all the books I've read in 2011, Téa Obreht's stunning début novel The Tiger's Wife (2011) is undoubtedly the one that caught my attention the most, and I'm happy to close the year 2011 (er… with a bit of a delay) reviewing it. Not only is Obreht gifted with words but her novel is so different from any other novel I've read that it made the reading experience all the more refreshing.

Set in an unnamed Balkan province, the novel relates the journey Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor, embarks on after the death of her beloved grandfather. Going from city to city for professional reasons or in order to get her grandfather's personal belongings back, she goes back in time and tries to piece together elements of his life by recalling the extraordinary stories he used to tell her when she was a little girl.

There is such a strong episodic quality to Obreht's novel that makes it stand out from other contemporary works of fiction and tells us a lot about the author's experience with short stories. The Tiger's Wife is a celebration of storytelling. Folk tales spread on the pages like a mural painting that survived the wars and reveals to us characters coming to life. Natalia, the narrator, comes to realise that her grandfather's tales about the deathless man, the tiger's wife, the butcher's son Luka or Darisa the bear were not the fruit of his imagination but real stories that shaped his life and will, in turn, shape hers.

Throughout the book, we learn about the grandfather's encounters with the deathless man, a young immortal man who can predict the death of someone with a magic coffee cup; we learn how the arrival of a tiger in Galina (the grandfather's birthplace) changed the life of the villagers; we learn how Luka ended up marrying the sister of his bride: “he lifted the veil in the ceremonial gesture of seeing his wife for the first time and found himself looking, with almost profane stupidity, into the face of a stranger.”

What amazes me in Obreht's book is how these tales, full of exoticism and reflecting the richness of Balkan folklore, intertwine realism and fantasy and how, despite this, we still want to believe in them. Natalia, from now on the guardian of these mythical tales, recounts how Gavran Gailé – the deathless man – proved his immorality by going into a lake “with weights tied to [his] feet”: “And there he is, […] climbing slowly and wetly out of the lake on the opposite side, […] and it's been hours.” 

Of course, we know that when stories are passed from one person to another they may undergo change. We also know that sometimes memory gaps occur and elements are left out, or that when telling a story some things are mixed up, remain untold or just cannot be explained. But despite all this, there is something inherently truthful in The Tiger's Wife and in these human stories worthy of the fireside.

Quote from the book: 
“Young boys are fascinated with animals, but for Darisa the hysterical dream of the golden labyrinth, coupled with the silent sanctuary of the trophy room, amounted to a much simpler notion: absence, solitude, and then, at the end of it all, Death in thousands of forms, standing in that hall with frankness and clarity—Death had size and color and shape, texture and grace. There was something concrete to it. In that room, Death had come and gone, swept by, and left behind a mirage of life—it was possible, he realized, to find life in Death.”

About the publication: Random House (USA), 2011.

About the cover design: Anna Bauer.

More about the author: Téa Obreht

Saturday, November 19, 2011


 Patrick's house was a ghost. Dust coated the windows, the petunias in the flower boxes bowed their heads, and spiderwebs clotted the eaves of the porch. Once I might have marveled at the webs – how delicate they were, how intricate – but today I saw ghastly silk ropes.

Patrick was found left for dead outside the Come 'n' Go where he works, with an anti-gay slur written on his bare chest. When the town sheriff doesn't seem to be inclined to find the real culprit, Cat Robinson, Patrick's former best friend, decides to start her own investigation even if it means knocking on the doors of people she hasn't talked to in years.

I usually don't read a lot of YA novels, mostly because as I'm difficult in my choice of books, I'm afraid they might not suit my reading expectations. So, either Lauren Myracle's novel, Shine (2011), is an exception or I'm actually missing something passing over YA fiction. Obviously, as I'm not an avid reader of this sort of books, I don't spend much time looking for them (usually I just wait for them to magically appear on my shelves). 

And I know they say to never judge a book by its cover, but if I found myself reading the synopsis of Shine, it was mainly because I found the cover art amazingly beautiful (it is a nice covert art, right?). But once the book is open, the colorful cover gives way to a dark page featuring a newspaper article. Believe me, there is no light shining through these first gloomy pages. 

The good part is that this article enables to introduce us to the main incident in the story: Patrick's aggression. As the story opens, we are left in the hands of sixteen-year-old Cat, who lives in Black Creek, a small and poor town in North Carolina inhabited by conservative and narrow-minded adults, and hopeless teenagers who take drugs in order to escape this messy reality. Cat's life isn't brighter than any other's. She lost her mother when she wasn't even old enough to remember her, and her father lives alone in a trailer in her backyard and overdoes alcohol.

I thought the most interesting thing about Myracle's novel is how she manages to intertwine the story of Black Creek's community with the detective plot. After all, the question Cat tries to find the answer to throughout the novel is: who is Patrick's aggressor? As we follow her from house to house in her quest to uncover the person who did it, we are introduced to the town inhabitants. Not only is Myracle's writing style very agreeable, but she handles the multiplicity of voices (and she does know how to reproduce teen slang) to the perfection. 

The flashbacks from Cat's memories constitute the core of the novel. They take us back in time and help us understand the different dynamics between the characters. Myracle brilliantly holds on to the detective aspect of the story so that you never quite know what to expect from the characters and while a minute ago you suspected them of the crime, you are immediately convinced of their innocence.

Shine is not just about discovering who is at the origin of the hate crime. It's also about self-discovery and acceptance of the past. Cat's need to find the culprit of the incident is what triggers her to stop hiding from others and accept the fact that, three years earlier, she was molested. In the end, what shines in Myracle's emotionally rich novel, is Cat's ability to slowly but surely overcome her fears and grow in confidence for the sake of her best friend.

Quote from the book: 
I loved everyone who said yes to the world and tried to make it better instead of worse, because so much in the world was ugly – and just about all the ugly parts were due to humans. I counted myself among those pitiful ranks. I didn't slam meth or get stinking drunk or go off and molest anyone, but that didn't let me off the hook. I hid in the shadows, but hiding had the power to hurt, too.”

About the publication: Amulet Books (USA), 2011.

About the cover art: Maria T. Middleton.

More about the author: Lauren Myracle