The Tiger’s Wife

In July of 2009 I posted about Tea Obreht’s short story The Tiger’s Wife. It appeared in The New Yorker’s Summer Fiction issue, so it seems only appropriate that in the summer of 2012 I am now posting about Obreht’s novel of the same name.

This is part of my original post:

The way that The Tiger’s Wife weaves a folk story into the larger conflict of war is also very impressive. For instance, in the opening of the piece when the tiger is still trapped in the citadel, the description is starkly genuine “The tiger did not know that they were bombs. He did not know anything beyond the hiss and screech of fighter plans passing overhead and the missiles falling, the bears bellowing in another part of the fortress , and the sudden silence of the birds.” Then later, ” When a stray bomb hit the south wall of the citadel, sending up clouds of smoke and ash, and shattering bits of rubble into his skin, his heart should have stopped. The toxic iridescent air; the feeling of his fur folding back like paper in the heat…”

This passage exemplifies two of the best aspects of Obreht’s novel: the interweaving of several different stories into one fluid, lyric narrative and the absolutely gorgeous language that Obreht uses to tell that story.

It was really enjoyable to see how the story of The Tiger’s Wife developed into a full length novel. The folklore that Obreht uses to give important information about characters and setting, is imaginative and compelling. I found myself completely caught up in the story of the tiger’s wife, The Deathless Man and the gypsies digging away in the vineyard in hopes of settling a restless corpse.

 This is a novel of loss. It is set against the backdrop of war and the protagonist is a doctor who finds herself struggling with the loss of her beloved grandfather. It is a poignant story and full of impeccable, tiny stories that make the characters rich and complex. What is remarkable is how skillfully Obreht links all these stories and details together so that, as a reader, you feel satisfied but at the same time there is still a little bit of mystery. I think this is no clearer then at the close of the book:

…He has forgotten the citadel, the nights of fire, his long and difficult journey to the mountain. Everything lies dead in his memory, except for the tiger’s wife, for whom, on certain nights, he goes calling, making that tight note that falls and falls. The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore.

Thursday (Tyger, Tyger burning bright…) Musings

I’ve fallen behind in my New Yorkers. Again. There are days when I think I should just cancel my subscription but then I read a piece of fiction like The Tiger’s Wife, and I change my mind.

Occasionally I get down on myself for not reading enough. More often than not I get down on my self for not reading enough prose. I love to read but I find that if I take a break from it for a few weeks, I love it even more when I return to it. As you can probably guess, with the summer semester coming quickly to an end, I’ve begun to delve into back issues of magazines, poetry journals, and books that have been piling up in a steady stack since the beginning of June. Today, while my afternoon class works on journals and essay revisions, I work on reading.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht appeared in the Summer Fiction issue of The New Yorker and it is one gorgeous piece of writing from start to finish. It’s a story that builds itself around folklore and while it is gruesomely beautiful throughout, I think what is most impressive about the story is how much movement Obreht maintains over a short story. We travel with the tiger and as we travel, a complex narrative begins to unravel. I like the mysteriousness of this piece and the supernatural element. It reminds me of The Decemberists album The Crane Wife. This album incidentally is also built around folklore.

The way that The Tiger’s Wife weaves a folk story into the larger conflict of war is also very impressive. For instance, in the opening of the piece when the tiger is still trapped in the citadel, the description is starkly genuine “The tiger did not know that they were bombs. He did not know anything beyond the hiss and screech of fighter plans passing overhead and the missiles falling, the bears bellowing in another part of the fortress , and the sudden silence of the birds.” Then later, ” When a stray bomb hit the south wall of the citadel, sending up clouds of smoke and ash, and shattering bits of rubble into his skin, his heart should have stopped. The toxic iridescent air; the feeling of his fur folding back like paper in the heat…”

The transformation of the tiger into something mythic is slow in this story but vital, because in the end he vanishes and we accept that with no questions asked. Because of this war, he has morphed into legend. Into something beautiful.

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire in thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art?
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand, and what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake