The tiger's Wife is a novel that refrains from being magical realism but tells the story of Natalia discovering her grandfather's identity and inner-thoughts through the tales of a village filled with legend and superstition. At the heart of the story is the life of Natalia and the unravelling of her recent grandfather's death. It all starts with meeting Natalia, along with her medical colleague and close friend, Zora, taking a trip to an orphanage in Brejevina, a village filled with illness and poverty. Her grandfather's death happened in Zdrevkov, a nearby town. Natalia and Zora meet their host, Barba-Ivan and his wife Nada, while learning that their is a group of men digging in the vineyard behind the property. All of these men and women blame the disease, a vicious throat-rattling cough, to be the work of a displeased dead relative that had been buried in the vineyard instead of taken back to their homeland.
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Then the story follows Natalia's retelling of her grandfather's stories of a deathless man, a deaf-mute woman, and living in a superstitious village at a young age. The grandfather professed to have met the deathless man three times in his lifetime, the first being abnormal because the man is laying in a coffin made by the townspeople. It turns out that Natalia's grandfather challenges him by tying blocks to his feet and tossing him off a dock in the middle of the night; this man survives all night underwater.
Unfortunately, the grandfather denies him the copy of The Jungle Book that he had wagered against the man and the plot continues. Natalia is vaccinating orphans and runs out of candy, the item that prevents the children from crying and throwing tantrums while being examined. Self-sent on the errand of gathering treats, Natalia makes a side-stop in Zdrevkov to recover her grandfather's possessions from a makeshift medical building where he had died. The second memory of the deathless man had been in a prison camp of sorts during the war. Natalia's grandfather was placed in charge of guarding a space that contained ill individuals that might be contagious. The encounter is short-lived and the deathless man is unable to convince the grandfather of his rare immunity.
A majority of the story revolves around the events from the grandfather's childhood, growing-up in a village filled with superstition. The Germans bombed Galina, the main town near his childhood home, ending in the release of a tiger amongst others exotic animals from the zoo. It is revealed that around the same time a man returns to the village to take over his father's trade as butcher, Luka. He brings with him a wife that is both deaf and mute but beautiful in her own rights, however, is a cover-up for his homosexuality. After being physically and verbally beaten by his family, Luka's goal of being a singer is taken away by a trusted friend. Filled with anger and bitterness that is at times primeval, Luka beats his wife and later resents her for being silent and submissive.
The tiger befriends the woman, killing the butcher in his smoke-house during a cold night while the grandfather, having tucked himself away, experienced the tiger's authority and beauty the same night. Luka's wife is pregnant and the village conjured a tale that the tiger shed his skin on her front doorstep, making love to her in the night. The tiger's wife, the name labeled on her, is fear and pitied. Natalia's grandfather, a young boy at the time, is taking the woman baskets filled with provisions like dried foods and blankets. In the midst of winter, Darisa arrived at the village gate and learns of the strange shortcomings at the edge of the village. He is a hunter and trades skins, notably bear, to the villagers. The legendary quarrel between Kipling's Shere-Khan and Baloo is played-out between the tiger and the huntsmen in the dead of winter, leaving the tiger the winner. However, the tiger's wife dies without giving birth.
The story ends with the grandfather meeting the deathless man for a third time in a hotel restaurant. Everywhere the deathless man travels, he carries a teacup that if broken is quickly replaced. It is believed that his uncle is Death and his job after cheating him out of taking him to the afterlife, is gathering the souls of those about to die; he collects the grandfather right before the city is bombed. Natalia, likewise, spends the night in the vineyard and meets the deathless man who is collecting the dormant spirit of the relative that had been recently unearthed by the diggers, learning very little about her grandfather and herself but realizing that she knew her grandfather's death and life story all along.
Best part of story, including ending:
I really liked this story because of the amount of detail about the tiger, the village, and the incorporation of "The Jungle Book" by Kipling.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene occurs in the middle of the novel where the tiger is wrestling with a bear, Darisa, in a snow-filled valley in the dead of winter. It is the kind of fight that is metaphorical and literal in the unspoken battle between the two rivals in the village.
Opinion about the main character:
I really like that Natalia is able to have her own voice in the book but switches easily to narrator. Her characteristics are suppose to enhance the grandfather's stories, not distract, which she achieves without missing a step.
A young female Croatian doctor returns to her grandfather's home village on a medical mission to vaccinate children, and ends up hearing old wartime village lore, including the mysterious tale of the tiger's wife. Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife follows Natalia, a young doctor, as she embarks on a volunteer project to vaccinate children in her home country of Croatia. One day, she leaves her partner behind to manage the clinic and heads off to her recently deceased grandfather's home village. There, she spends the day at a neighbor's home going through her grandpa's possessions.
The neighbors have a crew digging in their vineyards, which include several families with aging relatives and children sick with tuberculosis. At first the doctor is horrified to see this apparent exploitation of their labor, until she realizes that they aren't farming the fields at all, but searching by choice for the buried body of an ancestor of theirs. They have retained traditional beliefs that say that they will continue to be sick until they can find and rebury the ancestor's bones in a location he would have preferred.
In the meantime, Natalia goes through her grandfather's things and reads stories about village life over the past several decades, before and after war devastates the country and remote village. In the stories, there's a strange man who believes himself to be immortal and keeps running into her grandfather and telling him wild tales. And a violent butcher, Luka, who drinks and beats his deaf and mute wife, whom we later discover was a kind of traveling musician and hippie, who lost himself and became mean when the intellectual soulmate of a woman he hoped to marry suddenly left him and her father tricked him into marrying her sister.
This deaf and mute sister found herself better able to relate to animals than people, and as a boy the main character's grandfather would see her roam the countryside alone at night. An escaped zoo tiger prowled near the village, and the butcher's wife was found late one evening in an abandoned cabin near the sleeping tiger. Rumors spread that she was in love with the tiger, and perhaps turned into a female tiger at night.
Throughout the stories, there is this sense of fantasy and imagination, and also of impending, uncertain doom, as the people know their existence is about to be shattered by incoming foreign troops. And Natalia can at last make sense of her childhood memories. Her grandfather took her repeatedly as a child to see the tigers at the zoo, until the war made the trips too dangerous. At last she can see why these excursions meant so much to him.
At the end of the day, Natalia rejoins her partner at the medical clinic and helps vaccinate the children. The next day, she returns to her grandfather's village, to find the relentless diggers in her neighbor's field have at last uncovered the ancestor's bones. They need an official to perform the reburial ceremony, and she agrees, finally acknowledging how this unscientific ritual addresses the people's needs for history, memory, heritage and some kind of transcendence beyond their mortal, impoverished lives. However, she asks for a favor in return: that they will come to her clinic after the ceremony and accept modern medicine.
So there's this mixture of old and new, tradition and science, faith and reason, all set within spectacular, lushly described, flowering seaside Croatia.
Best part of story, including ending:
I enjoyed the unique plot involving a woman and her grandfather, which we don't always see in literature. And how the author kept the story dramatic without sensationalism. We didn't have to see battle scenes or murders, for example, to feel the impact of the war. Also, the lovely scenery and the atmosphere of the country. I enjoyed hearing about a completely different place!
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene came near the end, when Natalia, the doctor, at last participated in the ceremony over the reburial of the ancestor of some poor villagers who believed the sickness among them arose from the anger of the ghost of this departed gentleman. This was because Natalia had come around and was ready to acknowledge why this was important to them, and to practice modern medicine among them while still respecting their culture. Also, because the scene illustrated powerfully how the past and the present coexist within modern-day Croatia.
Opinion about the main character:
Natalia was intellectual without being sarcastic, thoughtful without being withdrawn, and teachable without being passive. A good well-balanced heroine.