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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Books

Debut novel doesn’t measure up


Tea Obreht’s book, “The Tiger’s Wife,” recently made its way to bookstore shelves with surprising fanfare for a novel written by a 25-year-old author without any other titles to her name.

Obreht was lauded by the Wall Street Journal for having “a talent for subtle plotting that eludes most writers twice her age,” and “descriptive powers (that) suggest a kind of channeled genius.” Similarly, the New York Times claimed her work was “a richly textured and searing novel.”

Already named an author on the “Top 20 Under 40” list by The New Yorker for earlier short stories, the literary world anticipated the book with eager enthusiasm.

All the praise makes for a charming Cinderella story as the young writer rises out of obscurity, and the hype inspired me enough to read the novel.

Unfortunately, that’s where the story falters — the novel transitions from a Cinderella story into that of Sleeping Beauty, as its intricate plot gets lost in the slumber of an uninspiring narrative.

Obreht does have a way of stitching together myth and magic and the novel’s history and heritage creates an endearing fable.

However, she writes with the unsteady hand of one who has yet to understand the nuances of genuinely authentic prose. The descriptive powers that were so admired by various publications fell somewhat flat on the page.

Instead of unfolding in a more traditional manner where each line is the obvious and inevitable antecedent of the next, her prose comes forth in a sort of clumsy and inorganic way. You never feel completely engaged with the prose, so it’s difficult to lose yourself in the story.

The novel plodded along with descriptions that were a bit too generic to be illuminating, dialogue a bit too trite to be revealing and characters that, in the end, began to feel a bit more like caricatures.

But I suppose that is the true test of an author’s skill — to put out text imbued with a subtlety that allows the reader to, in a sense, buy into the reality of the work for a moment.

It would be unfair to discount the work entirely or to neglect to elaborate on the successes that can be found in the life of the novel’s plot.

“The Tiger’s Wife” takes place somewhere in the Balkans and is centered around protagonist Natalia, her grandfather and the details of his life and death.

In the story, Natalia learns of her grandfather’s death as she travels to a remote village as a young doctor on a charity mission to help underprivileged orphans.

Memories of her grandfather and the fables of his life blend with the present time and ultimately merge to create a striking conclusion to the tale.

The plotting itself is perhaps the most notable achievement of the book.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man,” Natalia says early in the book.

As she narrates through the handed-down memories of the father’s mysterious mythos, her creative manipulation of the surreal and the factual is captivating and unique.

I appreciated the outlandish and original tale because it summoned the courage to tread the line between the real and the fantastic.

All together, Obreht’s debut novel was certainly an interesting ride. It offered a glance into a new and foreign world with strange scenery and extraordinary characters. The real beauty of “The Tiger’s Wife” can be found in its ability to revive the folkloric tradition of ancestry and imagination and impart its significance colorfully to the reader.


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