The Tiger’s Wife: A Novel by Téa Obreht (New York: Random House, 368 pp)


Born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia, Téa Obreht grew up in Cyprus and Egypt before immigrating to the United States in 1997. Her writing is published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Zoetrope: All-Story, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize. 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 Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in Ithaca, New York.

Faith or Reason

With the death of famed author and theist critic Christopher Hitchens framing recent discussions, the culture wars between evangelical Christians and hard-nose atheistic scientists rage on. Both sides consider the other to be the epitome of evil in the current age. The Christian is either a beacon of morality or the source of discrimination, violence, and ignorance; the atheist represents either the foundation of the new, secular, and humanist world or a brazen liar spewing hate toward a specific people group.
Setting aside all rhetoric, the core of the argument resides in the principle of reason versus faith. Often painted as polar opposites, reason and faith act as the different ways in which an individual can approach a problem or provide an explanation.
And reason versus faith offers the core debate in Téa Obreht’s new novel, The Tiger’s Wife.

A Doctor Dealing with Death

Set in the Balkans in an unnamed country with a remarkably similar history to the former Yugoslavia, the protagonist, Natalia, travels with her best-friend-since-childhood, Zóra, to an orphanage near the sea. Both trained as doctors, the pair arrives hoping to cure physical and psychological wounds.
While the duo travels, Natalia learns of the sudden death of her grandfather, who was a physician of great renown. Natalia’s grandfather silently suffered through cancer and chose to die alone in a rundown region unknown to his family. Coping with the shock of losing her closest family member, Natalia reminisces about the unique stories her grandfather told—particularly about the tiger’s wife and the deathless man.

“My grandfather never refers to the tiger’s wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, ‘I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.’ Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself — and will, for years and years” (4).

During recollections such as these, the reader learns of the intricate relationship Natalia had with her grandfather, and the complicated relationship he had with the world at large.

A Grandfather Caught between Science and Belief

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar

Born and raised in a small Balkan village, Natalia’s grandfather learned of Balkan superstition from an early age. When a mysterious tiger appears in the outskirts of the village, popular opinion in the settlement exposes the fantastical interpretations the human mind creates to explain such situations. With fear and faith in superstition, the existence of the tiger spells doom for the ease of mind in the village — Natalia’s grandfather included.

Separately, Natalia thinks back to the many stories her grandfather told of the deathless man. On multiple occasions during her grandfather’s work as a doctor, the grandfather meets a man who claims the supernatural ability of immortality. In one moment of disbelief, in fact, her grandfather wagers with the man and ties the deathless man to a cinder block before allowing him to wade into a deep lake. Imagine the grandfather’s surprise when the deathless man slips out of the shallows hours later.

Medicine or Superstition

Despite the many themes of war, family, regret, and mysticism in The Tiger’s Wife, I find the disconnect between faith and reason to be the core theme of this novel. Natalia’s grandfather sought a degree in medicine in order to combat the superstitious beliefs that killed many people he knew. Yet at the same time, the grandfather must face many supernatural and seemingly miraculous aspects of his own life.
Likewise, Natalia, as a doctor, can’t help but think superstitiously about her grandfather’s demise. Despite her formal training in science and reason, her mind wanders toward items of belief when considering the last moments of her grandfather. While discussing a character in the grandfather’s past, Obreht ponders why death holds us so comprehensively.

“Young boys are fascinated with animals, but for Dariša 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” (248).


A False Dichotomy

Of course, from a philosophical perspective, the dichotomy between faith and reason is nonexistent. Faith is the bedrock of human activity. People framing faith and reason in conflict merely need to ask why they believe that reason provides the right answers. In truth, the only answer to such a question is that they have faith that reason gives them the right answers.
My enjoyment of this novel finds its focus under this principle. As an individual who values education and reason, my personal beliefs can often seem in conflict with my educational pursuits. Yet, I understand that I possess as much faith in reason as I have in less tangible beliefs. With The Tiger’s Wife, I find parallels in these characters as they ponder the superstitious and mystical beside the calculated and the rational.
In The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht explores the death of a family member and how the scientific mind of a doctor resorts to folk belief in order find meaning. A complex but rewarding read, The Tiger’s Wife is a book highly recommend for anyone who enjoys literary fiction, Balkan folklore, and/or the dichotomy between faith and reason.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards
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