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