The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
A mixture of folklore, fantasy and life in the 21st century makes up the world of the central character, Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor living in a Balkan city with her grandparents. On her way to inoculate orphans across a new border, she hears of her grandfather’s death causing her to reflect on their past life together and in particular of the stories that he told her about ‘the deathless man’ and, of course, The Tiger’s Wife. She learns later that the stories her grandfather, who was also a doctor, told her were more factual than she’d first realised and that he was involved with both of these characters. The tiger had escaped from the zoo during a bomb raid and made its way to her grandfather’s village when he was a small boy where he witnessed the befriending of the tiger by the mute wife of the village butcher. The deathless man, a man who the grandfather witnessed as having been shot and drowned but never dies, appeared at various times throughout the grandfather’s life. Although Natalia was aware that her grandfather had cancer, and had a limited life expectancy, she was troubled that he’d made a journey that was far beyond his physical capability until she realised that he’d gone to settle an old score.
The story depicts a world steeped in superstition and war. It weaves constantly between fantasy and fact though focuses more on the grandfather’s stories and current myths than on Natalia’s current life, clearly showing how Balkan life is heavily influenced by superstition, even in today’s society. The narration begins beautifully by relating the beliefs held by Natalia’s grandmother of how the soul is left to wander after death. The story then moves quickly to highlight the mystery of why her grandfather had gone so far from home when terminally ill but then it slows down into a crawl. The Tiger’s Wife was the surprise winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, however with more editing it would have been less of a surprise.
Alison OReilly 31/3/2012
Great House by Nicole Krauss
This terrific book centres on the stories of five narrators, who are completely unrelated, but whose lives have been, or will be, influenced in someway by an overbearingly large desk.
Nadia begins the novel with her account of her life. She is a fairly successful writer living in New York and is introduced to Daniel Varsky, a Chilean poet, who asks Nadia to look after his desk whilst he returns to Chile. Daniel never returns but his desk serves as a memory that haunts Nadia for the rest of her life.
The narrative is then handed to Aaron, an elderly Israeli lawyer, who lives in Jerusalem and who’s wife has just died. Aaron is joined at his wife’s funeral by his youngest son, Dov, who has returned after many years of living in the UK. Aaron has never understood Dov as Dov, even as a young boy, was unable to communicate his feelings. Rarely do the two men speak to each other but their lives change forever when Nadia arrives in Jerusalem.
The third narrator is Izzy, an American student who’s studying at Oxford. She tells how she falls in love with Yoav, who has a very close relationship – and some say too close - with his sister Leah. The two siblings spent their formative years travelling the world with their father, George Wiesz, an antiques dealer, which has made them both very insular.
The very kindly Arthur Bender enters the story. Arthur is married to another writer, a German Jew called Lotte Berg who arrived in Britain as a war refugee and who is incrediably secretive. Lotte, like Nadia, spends her life writing on the same massive and forbidding desk until one day Arthur returns home to find that Lotte has given the desk away to a stranger. Stunned, but knowing that Lotte doesn’t like to be questioned, Arthur doesn’t say too much. But it’s when Lotte begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s that she lets slip that she had given birth to a child after she arrived in Britain and had given the baby away for adoption. This sends Arthur reeling so after Lotte death, he begins to delve into her past life.
Finally the book leaves us with the narrative from George Wiesz who had spent his life tracking down antiques and artworks for those who had escaped the Nazis and had been forced to leave their treasured belongings behind. When George hears of the whereabouts of the desk, he sets his sights on procuring it.
The author, Nicole Krause, has used quite a diverse range of characters who are all involved in a mystery of some kind, whether directly or by association. Aaron is the strongest character with his forthright ways and grumpy attitude, whilst the other characters appear, at times, a little too docile except for George Wiesz who, as he quietly deals with the antiques, likes to control people’s minds.
This book is fascinating. The insight into Israeli life not only made the story more credible but was also a bit of an education. The book is called Great House in reference to the burning the Temple – great house – in Jerusalem and the Jewish belief that each Jewish soul can recall to mind a fragment of the Temple thereby enabling the reconstruction of the Temple again, albeit in a collective memory. The whole book is about memories and how feelings are provoked and relived by those memories which are often provoked by possessions. There are many twists and turns in the novel and the plot certainly gets your mind racing as you try to second guess the author’s plotline. But the plotline is not straight forward and warrants a second reading. But that doesn’t make it a bad book, in fact it’s quite ingenious and a refreshing exercise for the mind plus it has good filmatic potential.
Alison OReilly 31/3/2012