Yugoslavian-born Téa Obreht can now stand beside great female authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a fellow winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction. But at twenty-five, she is the youngest ever. In 2011, she picked up the award for her unusual novel The Tiger’s Wife, which is set in the Balkans and is a creative mix of history, folklore and fantasy.
Narrated by a young doctor Natalia, the novel moves between the present day and a time when her grandfather was a young man growing up surrounded by war and some of the most unusual characters I have come across in recent fiction.
The Tiger’s Wife is a story of family, love and loss but is told in such an unusual way it dares you to close your eyes, open your mind and be swept away by the possibilities.
An unusual mix of history, folklore and fantasy set in the Balkans, the book was a surprise winner of the award and no-one was more shocked than the author herself.
There is so much that goes on in this book at so many different levels that it is difficult to pigeonhole it or describe it so that it makes sense, and that is what makes it so unusual and so appealing.
The book is narrated by a young doctor, Natalia, who arrives at an orphanage to carry out an inoculation program with her life-long friend Zóra. They stay in the home of the orphanage priest’s parents, who happen to have a family of cursed travellers digging day and night in their vineyard searching for the missing bones of a relative in the hope that the curse will be lifted.
At the same time, Natalia learns that her beloved grandfather, also a doctor and her role model, has died in mysterious circumstances in a small town close to where she is staying. She remembers the story he told her as a child – that of the deathless man doomed for immortality – and believes he has gone looking for him knowing that his time was up.
The novel moves back and forward between Natalia’s present day hunt for answers and the life of her grandfather during the war; growing up in a time when characters like the deathless man and the tiger’s wife were seemingly real.
The tiger of the book escaped from the local zoo during the war and spent his days in the woodlands surrounding her grandfather’s village of Galina, making nocturnal visits for food to the home of the outcast, who would later take on the title of his wife.
The lines of reality and fantasy are at times blurred and confusing but it is a novel which expects the reader to go along for the ride – a ride that is well worth the effort.
About Téa Obreht
Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia and raised in Belgrade before moving to Cyprus, Egypt and then finally, the United States. She graduated from the University of Southern California and then went on to receive her MFA in Fiction from the Creative Writing Program at Cornell University in 2009. In 2010 she featured in the New Yorker’s Top 20 Writers under 40 Fiction Issue (June 2010). She was the youngest on the list. Obreht lives in New York.
Orange Prize for Fiction
June 2011 was the 16th anniversary of the Orange Prize for Fiction which celebrates excellence in women’s writing throughout the world. The winner
receives £30,000 prize money and the ‘Bessie’ which is a limited-edition bronze figurine. A hike in book sales is also guaranteed.
Previous winners include some of the world’s most popular authors and books that feature on must-read lists year after year. Here is a look at the list taken from the Orange Prize for Fiction website: Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna (2010), Marilynne Robinson for Home (2009), Rose Tremain for The Road Home (2008), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for Half of a Yellow Sun (2007), Zadie Smith for On Beauty (2006), Lionel Shriver for We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005), Andrea Levy for Small Island (2004), Valerie Martin for Property (2003), Ann Patchett for Bel Canto (2002), Kate Grenville for The Idea of Perfection (2001), Linda Grant for When I Lived in Modern Times (2000), Suzanne Berne for A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999), Carol Shields for Larry’s Party (1998), Anne Michaels for Fugitive Pieces (1997), and Helen Dunmore for A Spell of Winter (1996).
Obreht, T. (2011) The Tiger’s Wife (Orion Books Ltd, ISBN: 9780753827406, 336 pages.)
My rating: ★★★★