The Tiger’s Wife is an interlocking series of fabulist tales, set in an unnamed Balkan country that is obviously Yugoslavia before and after its dissolution into ethnic political states, which unfolds the life and death of the narrator’s grandfather. It’s a meditation on grief, cultural blindness and bigotry, among other things, but overarchingly the constant effort to try to live a decent life and see the decency in others, even those who seemingly don’t possess it. Written by Téa Obreht, whom The New Yorker named one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” list, it is, as you might expect given those accolades, considered a “literary” novel. Which is perhaps why you haven’t seen much mention of it in genre circles, despite the fact that it is a fantasy. However you want to classify it, it’s good and well-deserving of the hype it’s received. One thing that struck me that I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned is the similarity between Obreht and Ray Bradbury in his prime, back in the days when Clifton Fadiman was trying to sell The Martian Chronicles to the literary mainstream.
I have to say that Obreht is the better writer, more in control of her fabricated folklore and less inclined to Bradburian whimsy, as well as much darker. Which is maybe why she is “literary.” But, just for fun, here’s a test. Which of these passages is written by Obreht, and which by Bradbury? (All winners receive absolutely nothing besides smug self-satisfaction.)
So there we are, Dominic and I, standing in the little stone church…and the coffin…is there, lying at an angle from the door, as if it’s been shoved in pretty quickly. It’s a dusty wooden coffin. The church is stone, and quiet. It smells of sandalwood and wax, and there is an icon of the Virgin above the door. It is a beautiful church, but it is obvious that no one been in it for a long time—the candles are all out, and this fellow[‘s] coffin is covered with a few spatters of white, which the doves that live in the belfry have been dropping down on him. It is a sad thing to see, because as far as I know, this man…has done nothing to deserve being shot in back of the head at his own funeral…And then we hear something that is altogether incredible, something you cannot even begin to appreciate because, without hearing for yourself the way it sounded in the quiet church, you won’t believe it happened. It is the sound of shuffling movement, and then, all of a sudden, a voice rom the coffin, a frank, polite, slightly muffled voice that says: “Water.”
The old man was flintlock dead, yes, but electricity alive sheathed over him. It warmed on his cold, shell ears, it flickered in his deep-as-an-abandoned-stone-wall nostrils. It crept blue eels of power on his praying mantis fingers and his grasshopper knees…And the old man came alive. Will yelled himself hoarse. And no one heard. For now, very slowly, as if roused by thunder, as if the electric fire were new dawn, one dead eyelid peeled itself slowly open…there was the faintest stir as of an autumn leaf beneath the old man’s shirt…The old old man sighed.