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The Tiger's Wife: A Novel
by Téa Obreht
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NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Wall Street Journal • O: The Oprah Magazine • The Economist • Vogue • Slate • Chicago Tribune • The Seattle Times • Dayton Daily News • Publishers Weekly • Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered
SELECTED ONE OF THE TOP 10 BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times • Entertainment Weekly • The Christian Science Monitor • The Kansas City Star • Library Journal
In a Balkan country mending from war, Natalia, a young doctor, is compelled to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. Searching for clues, she turns to his worn copy of The Jungle Book and the stories he told her of his encounters over the years with “the deathless man.” But most extraordinary of all is the story her grandfather never told her—the legend of the tiger’s wife.
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Editorial ReviewAuthor One-on-One: Jennifer Egan and TÃ©a Obreht
Jennifer Egan is the recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was also awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the author of The Keep, Look at Me, and the story collection Emerald City. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harperâ??s Magazine, GQ, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction appears frequently in The New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and sons in Brooklyn.
Jennifer Egan: One of the central powerful relationships in the book is between Natalia and her grandfather: itâ??s not the type of relationship we usually see as the primary relationship in a novel. Could you talk a little about that grandparent-grandchild relationship, your feelings about it in your own life and how it became central in this novel?
TÃ©a Obreht: I grew up with my grandparents on my motherâ??s side, and they essentially raised me. As a kid, you resist the idea of your own parents having had lives and pasts of their own. Snuff me out if Iâ??m wrong here, but I see that as something prevalent in your novel A Visit From the Goon Squad: a sense of the parent-child relationship being very tense and of children not wanting to live in their parentsâ?? shadow. When youâ??re growing up, the lives of your parents arenâ??t that fascinating, but there is this fascination with grandparents. Because of that great amount of time that has passed between their youth and yours, and the fact that they lived entire lives before you even got there, you canâ??t really deny their identity as individuals prior to your existence they way perhaps you can with your parents. Thereâ??s also an awareness that the world was very different when they were living their lives.
Egan: Animals play such an enormous role in the novel: the tiger, the dog, Sonia the elephant, Darisa who seems to be part-human, part-bear. You write so movingly about animals that I found myself close to tears every time you wrote about the tiger from the tigerâ??s point of view. Do you have a strong connection to animals in your life? How is it that animals end up figuring so enormously in this story?
Obreht: Iâ??m definitely, it turns out, the kind of person whoâ??s a total National Geographic nerd. Iâ??m there for all the TV specials. As Iâ??ve gotten older I think my awareness of the natural world and animalsâ?? relationship to people--both culturally and biologically--has grown. It was fun to write from the point of view of the tiger, and emotionally rewarding, but I think the animals also serve almost as markers around which the characters have to navigate. I donâ??t think that was something I did consciously, it just sort of happened. There is something jarring about seeing an animal out of place: thereâ??s a universal feeling of awe when you see an animal, particularly an impressive animal, out of place.
Egan: There are really two worlds in the book which mingle and sometimes intersect: thereâ??s the present day political, medical, scientific situation in which Natalia operates, and then thereâ??s this more mystical, folkloric world of the grandfatherâ??s past. How did these define themselves in your mind? Was it hard to move between them?
Obreht: Pretty early on in the writing I realized that mythmaking and storytelling are a way in which people deal with reality. Theyâ??re a coping mechanism. In Balkan culture, thereâ??s almost a knowledge that reality will eventually become myth. In ten or twenty years you will be able to recount what happened today with more and more embellishments until youâ??ve completely altered that reality and funneled it into the world of myth.
A Letter from the Author
TÃ©a Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harperâ??s, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundationâ??s list of 5 Under 35. TÃ©a Obreht lives in New York.After completing my first novel, The Tigerâ??s Wife, Iâ??ve found myself indulging in a sentimental mood. I pretend that this is due to my need to retrace my steps, to see how it all came together, and, by remembering what I did before, somehow speed my next project along; in fact, I am probably just procrastinating or being insufferable, mulling over memories that, due to the late hours, were doomed to an impregnable haze a long time ago. I dig through my â??notesâ??: folded scraps of paper, the backs of torn-open envelopes where I doodled plot points and lines of dialogue, index cards with cryptic inscriptionsâ??â??BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WATERMELON?!?!?â??â??punctuated as though Iâ??d had some kind of civilization-saving breakthrough. For whatever reason, as I go through my notes, I spend much of my time revisiting the evolution of my characters.Â Whoâ??s been there the longest? Who was thrown out at the last minute? Who was the life and soul of the first draft, and then ended up with one dialogue in the third? Whoâ??s been renamed, transformed completely into somebody else? >In some ways, the answers to these questions are both pointless and intensely personal, like telling a long-distance friend about how youâ??ve fallen in love with a person they have never met: they can listen politely while you rattle off a list of traits or events, but a whole world of experience separates the storyteller from the listener. But I do believe that thinking about these things gets back to the vital question of artistic control, and the surprising ways in which your work takes on a life of its own. In The Tigerâ??s Wife, I found, of course, that core of the cast membersâ?? a tiger, his â??wife,â?? a little boyâ??were all together at the outset, in the spring of 2007, peopling a lackluster short story about a deaf-mute girl who arrives in a snowbound village in pursuit of the escaped tiger with whom she performed in a traveling circus. But, to my surprise, I also found a then-minor character called DariÅ¡a the Bear. Originally, he was a mean drunk, a ruthless and uncomplicated villain, hardened by religious fanaticism, and I wanted the readerâ??s revulsion with him to be simple and complete. When the story began to expand, and the village of Galina and the characters who live there expanded with it, there was no room for DariÅ¡a; his kind of villainy had been eclipsed by a far more sinister character, and he was extracted and put away. He wouldnâ??t find his way into the book again until one afternoon, almost a year later, when I found myself at the Moscow flea market of Ismailovaâ??a townie-shunned tourist trap against which the few Russians I knew had cautioned meâ??and among the predictable lacquered matrioshkas, bootleg DVDs, prints of Soviet propaganda and fake FabergÃ© baubles, I met the bear-man. I canâ??t picture his face anymore, but I do remember that he had pitched his booth at the top of a wide, stone staircase, and that, draping down from the top like water, were the pelts of maybe two dozen brown bears of all shapes and shades, mouths agape. We must have talkedâ??I canâ??t imagine not asking him where he was from, or whether he had done the killing himselfâ??but I donâ??t remember the conversation. What I do remember is going home that afternoon and dredging up a man reincarnated as DariÅ¡a the Bear, a hunter and taxidermist whose obsession with death, drawn from great personal loss, is rooted in his desire to understand and preserve the majesty of things once living. I would never have thought, at the outset of all of this, that of all the characters in The Tigerâ??s Wife, I would end up feeling closest to DariÅ¡a. Perhaps it is because in a roundabout way I have ultimately spent so much time with him; perhaps it is because, in the end, he becomes a man who seeks to capture life in the absence of it. After all, isnâ??t that what storytellers really do?
ExcerptObreht: THE TIGER'S WIFE
the forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death. That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and the windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river. The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past—the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else—and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back. For this reason, the living bring their own rituals to a standstill: to welcome the newly loosed spirit, the living will not clean, will not wash or tidy, will not remove the soul’s belongings for forty days, hoping that sentiment and longing will bring it home again, encourage it to return with a message, with a sign, or with forgiveness. ... view entire excerpt...
Discussion Questions1. Natalia says that the key to her grandfather’s life and death
“lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the
story of the deathless man.” What power do the stories we tell
about ourselves have to shape our identity and help us understand
2. Which of the different ways the characters go about making
peace with the dead felt familiar from your own life? Which
took you by surprise?
3. Natalia believes that her grandfather’s memories of the village
apothecary “must have been imperishable.” What lesson do
you think he might have learned from what happened to the
4. What significance does the tiger have to the different characters
in the novel: Natalia, her grandfather, the tiger’s wife, the
villagers? Why do you think Natalia’s grandfather’s reaction to
the tiger’s appearance in the village was so different than the
rest of the villagers?
5. “The story of this war—dates, names, who started it, why—
that belongs to everyone,” Natalia’s grandfather tells her. But
“those moments you keep to yourself” are more important. By
eliding place names and specific events of recent Balkan history,
what do you think the author is doing?
6. When the deathless man and the grandfather share a last
meal before the bombing of Sarobor, the grandfather urges the
deathless man to tell the waiter his fate so he can go home and
be with his family. Is Gavran Gailé right to decide to stop
telling people that they are going to die? Would you rather
know your death was coming or go “in suddenness”?
7. Did knowing more about Luka’s past make him more sympathetic?
Why do you think the author might have chosen to
give the back stories of Luka, Dariša the Bear, and the apothecary?
8. The copy of The Jungle Book Natalia’s grandfather always
carries around in his coat pocket is not among the possessions
she collects after his death. What do you think happens to it?
9. The novel moves back and forth between myth and modern-
day “real life.” What did you think of the juxtaposition of
folklore and contemporary realism?
10. Of all the themes of this novel—war, storytelling, family,
death, myth, etc.—which one resonated the most for you?
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