‘Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs…’ A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic – Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book. Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather’s death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realises he may have died searching for ‘the deathless man’, a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger’s wife.
I don’t think I would have chosen this book myself – when I read what it was about I thought it would be quite depressing (set in the Balkans during and after the wars there), but it was chosen for my book group. Each month one of the four of us chooses a few books and the rest of us decide which one we want to read. The other 2 choices were kicked out by other people, so this it was.
I loved it, but then what isn’t to love about a book that has a man getting his arm chewed off by a tiger in the zoo in the first chapter? I don’t think of myself as someone who like anything like that, but for some reason it really drew me in. When I think more about it, some of the thriller novels I love are pretty graphic (Random by Craig Robertson anyone?). This wasn’t a thriller though, it was a literary novel.
I loved the characters, especially the MC’s Grandfather, who you know as a cute little boy with a new found love of tigers, through when he was a young doctor, and then to when he was an old man, with a life long love of tigers.
The story jumps about a lot, so when you start each chapter you have no idea which story it’s going to be telling. I found that off putting to start with, but got used to it pretty quickly; it was good for stopping reading at bedtime – I couldn’t carry on with the next chapter to find out what happened next, because the next chapter was leading on from another story.
This was Tea Obreht’s first novel, I hope it’s not her last. I totally can see why it won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011 and I’d totally recommend it to anyone (in fact I have already).