It must be that I have good taste? And as a consequence keep picking the same books? With Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife I noticed early on that the story was familiar. I even checked the archives here to see if I’d reviewed it before, finding nothing, I figured I must have started it at some point, but never finished it. Nope. I’d read the whole thing before, and I read the whole thing again. And again it was like the first time. Sigh.
Anyway. The plot is a bit… thin. While off providing vaccines at an orphanage, a granddaughter goes looking for he truth around the somewhat (though not hugely) mysterious death of her grandfather. What follows are a set of fables linked – tenuously – by their connection to the grandfather. The two key stories – that of the deathless man and the titular tiger’s wife – circle and ebb throughout the novel. Every so often the reader is brought back into the present and into something following more closely the rules of reality than the magic realism of the fantasy stories. These brief returns are meant, I suppose, to give you the impression that there’s an overarching narrative at work. I wasn’t persuaded. I’d have been happy for these to be a series of connected short stories.
My favourite section featured the deathless man (a deathless servant of Death bound to collect souls) in conversation with the grandfather. The two discuss whether it is better to know your death is coming and to have time to prepare for it, or to have it happen suddenly and without any warning. The deathless man maintains that a sudden death is preferable, giving you no time to dwell and to be afraid, while the grandfather sees the time to prepare and to be with one’s family as essential. Irony isn’t hard to read in the passage as we know that the grandfather, when faced with his own demise in a diagnosed fatal cancer, chooses to lie to his family and to flee in order to die on his own (or, we presume, once again in conversation with the deathless man).
I thought the writing was strong, and the telescoped stories of the grandfather intriguing – the deathless man more than the tiger’s wife, for me – but on the whole it didn’t hang together for me. But who knows, find me again in a decade and I’ll read it all again as if for the first time.