The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht

This 2010 work is a remarkable novel. And a highly imaginative one. Written by a young woman wise far beyond her years. Wise, especially, in being able to recreate what one speculates was the experience of her family and their suffering in a violent era of two world wars. It is also a complicated novel, shifting back and forth between the woman narrator Natalia’s present life, as a doctor dealing with the ills of society as well as the death of her beloved grandfather, and the life of that grandfather when he is nine years old. a major war is on the horizon, and his innocent life is complicated by the presence of a legendary tiger.

The reader moves back and forth between these two eras of time as well as from a world of reality to a more primitive world of superstition and legend. That is, to the world of the tiger and that of a deaf mute woman who has fled a violent marriage—arranged much like that of the Biblical Jacob—and found solace in the company of that tiger, who has fled the domesticated life of the local zoo after the city was bombed.

The physical descriptions of the war-torn landscape, of ruined cities, distraught citizens, and a fertile countryside, is brilliant, and yet the exact location of these events is never indicated, although it is clearly Eastern Europe and suggests the tumultuous history of Yugoslavia, where the author was born. The explanation appears to be that Obreht is aware that if the legendary aspects of her novel are to be credible she needs to remove that legendary portion from the world of specific reality.

But if the geography is elusive, what is not is the presence of death. In an era of warfare, death is everywhere, of course. And here it is given its reality through “the deathless man,” whom the grandfather continually encounters in his life, a man who is constantly being killed but never dies. He is, in fact, the author’s messenger of death, as he serves coffee to those he meets and then reads the coffee ground to determine if they are about to die. And, yet, like other “villains” of this novel, the author makes him human. She does so by her tale of why he was condemned not to die— because he once relieved a girl he loved from the death that she was fated to suffer. Note also that a subsidiary theme of this novel is how doctors, both the grandfather and the girl, deal with the constant presence of death.

What is amazing is that Obreht, who left Yugoslavia at seven, is now an American and wrote this work while studying for her MFA at Cornell. The novel was published when she was only 25. Her talent was immediately recognized by The New Yorker, when it ran an excerpt, and one can see many chapters that could have been extracted from the final manuscript. For she has written here a number of set pieces and a number of character studies that can easily stand alone. Not that they do not belong, for the character studies, in particular, humanize and help the reader to understand characters whose actions would otherwise seem abhorrent. For even as they portray the violence in these particular human beings, such as Luka, the abusive husband of the tiger’s wife, they also demonstrate how such villains came to commit their violent acts.

The structure of the novel revolves around Natalia’s attempt to discover the circumstance of the mysterious death of her grandfather. How well did he know he was going to die? Why did he leave home and his wife in order to die? Why did he go to the small town he went to? Why did he say he went there to visit Natalia, when that was not the case? In her own attempt to answer those questions while she is away on a mission to help the unfortunate, Natalia recalls her life with her grandfather, beginning with how he took her regularly to the zoo, where he passed on to her his fascination with tigers. As she searches for her answers, she discovers—from her memories and from those who knew her grandfather—about the deathless man, the tiger, and the tiger’s “wife.”

The major problem I had with this novel was being unable to remember where the story was each day when I returned to it. As vivid as the writing was, as interesting as the various tales were, the events themselves did not stick with me from one day to the next. Which perhaps goes to the point of some critics, who have said that there is not enough substance behind the beautiful, evocative writing. Nor enough connection among Natalia’s story, her grandfather’s story, the war story, and the legends of the deathless man and of the tiger and his wife. Another explanation for the abrupt moving back and forth in time is technical. For it helps to create suspense when we leave one era at a climactic moment, and return to the drama of the other era.

Yet, to balance that, I was fascinated each day by the content I was reading, and in my final analysis, I do believe the pieces fit together. And if the final fates of the characters is not clear—that of the tiger, of the tiger’s wife, of the tiger’s wife’s husband, of the grandfather, and even of others I have not mentioned, such as the Darisa, a great bear of a hunter and the tiger’s enemy—is that not often the case in real life? And is it especially not the case in the legends we recall, where the otherworld mysteriousness is the point, not the actual conclusion of the tale?

I believe Obreht wanted to pour into this work everything she felt about life and its meaning. That such meaning, for example, goes far beyond the reality we live, that it also includes a reality we don’t live but do imagine. Often, what we wish had happened. Which can turn into legend. But the author also shows that the meaning of life can be found in death, in whether we accept its arrival and in how we react to that knowledge. Thus, the presence of the deathless man.

I often disagree with Michiko Kakutani, but her New York Times review offers a summary of Obreht’s approach that is quite interesting: “It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Gunter Grass,” she writes, “as it is an extraordinary limber exploration of allegory and myth making and the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs or supernatural legends) reveal—and reflect back— the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies and hatreds.”

What Obreht accomplishes so effectively here is to mine the specific to reveal the universal. Time and again, her characters extract great truths from their daily life, their daily suffering. That war and its violence, in current parlance, is a game-changer, that our lives are never the same again, that we see life far differently, that out of daily experience comes a long view of history, of both man’s significance in that history and the value of each man’s life.

A story built around the relationship between a grandfather and a granddaughter is quite rare, and Obreht discusses this in an interview. She says that grandchildren often cannot relate to their parents’ lives but do want to know about their grandparents’ lives, lives that belong to an earlier era they cannot identify with but that they are curious about. She also says her own father was not in her life, but that she had a close relationship with her grandfather, who often did take her to the zoo. But beyond that, she says, this novel is not autobiographical. Of course, emotionally, it is quite autobiographical, and her relationship with her grandfather is why it is so successful. It is the starting point, and gives the novel its heart.

In the same interview, Obreht says she is not sure what she will write next, but does acknowledge her continuing interest in the Balkans. And I myself would not mind visiting that world again. But this raises the same question I had on finishing her novel. What will come next? She has put into this work so much of her knowledge of life, so much of her own family relationships, so much of her own awareness of legend and the imagination, what is left to inspire her? One might find it difficult to move from this to her view of American life. Perhaps there is something in her relationship with her mother, with whom she moved to Cyprus, to Egypt, and then to America. There may also be a germ in the fact that her grandfather was Catholic and that her grandmother was Moslem, and how they got along in a society that often did not.

In any event, both the literary world and I will be deeply interested in what comes next. It will have to be truly marvelous to top this work. Which often second novels are not. Perhaps the key will be how much more she discovers about life. How much more she is able to penetrate into the heart and into the soul of the people she writes about. This novel, as profound as it is, is more about surfaces. About the legends that we build to explain our lives. I might be more interested in the changes that occur within her characters, perhaps as a result of the same violence that inspires these legends. (November, 2014)

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The Keepers of the House, by Shirley Ann Grau

This is another novel that has sat on my shelves for a while. Grau was recognized a half century ago as an important writer, but has lately been forgotten. After a recent note revived my interest in this 1964 novel, I opened its covers. And was immediately enthralled.

It brought back memories of Faulkner. The style was different, much smoother, but it was concerned with family, with generations and ancestors, and with the culture of the South.

This is the story of the Howland family. We learn early on that their history is being recalled by Abigail, and she says that it is about her grandfather, about Margaret, and about herself. (It is also about their life in the changing farmhouse of the title.)

The work begins as a series of portraits, complete in themselves. We read, first, of grandfather William’s courtship, marriage, and widowhood, then of the beautifully portrayed family celebration of the marriage of his daughter Abigail, and then of his sojourn into the swamp to win a bet that he can find an illegal still. He journeys in a boat, and it is a particularly evocative portrayal of man confronting nature, reminiscent of Faulkner.

On this journey, William encounters Margaret, a poor black woman, and we then read of her lonely upbringing before and after her own grandmother dies. Again, there is a moving portrait, this time of her family’s encounter with death. This is followed by additional sensitive writing, as Margaret encounters the plant life around her, as well as the insect and animal life. Finally, she meets Howland and goes to work for him. She is seventeen, and we are unprepared for what happens next. But are we unprepared because Grau was reluctant to write about the sex that soon looms between them, or because writers wrote about this less often in the sixties?

Grau then skips a generation, and the longest narrative is given to Abigail, the granddaughter of Howland, a Howland who has already impregnated Margaret five times. Three generations are joined, and we are up to the present. But the next 30 to 40 pages are disappointing. Abigail has no internal life and develops no relationships. Not with her grandfather, not with Margaret, not with Margaret’s children, not with Nature. Her mother, a shadowy figure, abruptly dies off stage. Abigail has a crush on a high school boy, but he never appears. There is no story, only anecdote, no connections, no interest, until Abigail reaches college and both loses her virginity and meets her future husband. (Is it irony, or just planned coincidence, that her own marriage will encounter the same fate as that of her mother?)

However, as the anecdotal approach continues, we sense, between the lines, that her new husband John’s political ambition and his attitude toward Negroes may lead to marital tension. One speculates that the novel’s earlier coverage of family events had interest because they featured only the highlights of those events, and, as related by Abigail, were given a certain perspective. Whereas, the routine of Abigail bearing children, supporting her husband, and running a home, are simply sequential events, and lack any perspective, much less any tension.

Emotion and perspective finally do enter, however, with two deaths. First, that of Grandfather Howland, and then of Margaret. In each case, it is how the family reacts rather than any description of the death or the service to follow. This is particularly true in the case of Margaret, as we anticipate that the South’s attitude toward Negroes may at last become significant.

And finally, the chickens do come home to roost—with two bits of melodrama that really do not fit the tone of the novel. The first concerns the town’s revenge on the dead Howland for having married a Negro woman. And the second is his daughter Abigail’s revenge on the town. Both scenes are well drawn, but one senses the author wanting to conclude her novel with an emotional punch. I even wondered if she had planned those scenes, especially the first, from the beginning. But I decided not, or hoped not, for it would make the rest too calculated.

To sum up, this begins as a beautifully written novel, a beautifully felt novel whose perspective fades when Howland’s daughter, Abigail, takes over as narrator of her own story. Then it becomes a routinely plotted young woman’s life, until the past catches up with the present—a catching up that I think is too arbitrary. And which ends up betraying the hand of the author, who uses an election “scandal” to instigate this tale of retribution.

As I recall, I became aware of Grau following reviews of her previous novel, The House on Coliseum Street, which is about a New Orleans family. I purchased this book as a remainder, but cannot recall whether I did so because it had won the Pulitzer Prize. (I have to believe it won, in part, because of its racial theme. For that committee likes novels that capture a bit of the American scene.)

So reading this work has been a rewarding literary experience, and acquainted me with a truly literate American author. But, like many, I would also label her as a Southern writer, even though she derides that label. One has to, I believe, because she captures so well the Southern culture.

Which was her mission here as a novelist. To portray through one Southern family the complications that arise from whites and Negroes being so tied together, and yet so separate. It is a social contradiction that easily disrupts, as here, the family life of both races. But for me, the author’s mission interferes with her novel’s literary value. Which ends up being driven more by plot, the election scandal and the barn-burning scene, than by character.

Yes, Abigail is a strong character at the end, but in the final scene, with her laughter and her crying, the author seems to lose control over her. Or has Abigail been undone by her own actions? Has she become as vengeful, as corrupted, as the prejudiced townspeople around her?

Reading more Grau would be interesting, but her work is not at the top of my list. (November, 2014)

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

This is a good novel. No one should say surprisingly, for Rowling is a born storyteller and a solid technician in this 2012 work. What I admired from the beginning was her creation of life in a small British town, Pagford, from the political confrontations to the family jealousies to the juvenile insecurities. And from the class warfare to the social ills to the generational conflicts.

The novel begins when a pillar of the town, Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies. This calls for a vote to replace him on the parish council—which introduces political conflict, since the dead man wanted to keep the town together rather than exile a poor community to another jurisdiction. To explore this conflict, we meet the families on both sides. There are Howard and Shirley Mollison, who run the council and want to rid the town of the poor, including a local clinic; their son Miles, a candidate following his father’s wishes; and Miles’ wife, Samantha. There are the Prices, whose son Andrew resents his father Simon and his decision to run for the council to take advantage of potential graft. And there is Andrew’s pal Stuart (Fats), whose father, Colby, is running to preserve the policies of the dead man.

Beyond the political intrigue, there is social conflict, centered on the poor Weeden family. Daughter Krystal is a teenager whose mother Terri is a self-centered prostitute and a heroin addict. Krystal adores her three-year-old brother, Robbie, whom her mother neglects. The daughter is the novel’s most fully developed character, and Rowling seems to identify with her insecurities, her contradictions, and yet her sound family sense. The Weedon’s friendly social worker is Kay Bawden, who has a beautiful daughter Gaia. Kay has come to Pagford hoping to find security with Gavin Hughes, a local lawyer. Finally, there is Parminda Jawanda, a doctor with a conscience, a handsome husband, and a plain, insecure daughter. Sukhvinder.

This is a complicated roster of characters, actually eight families, to follow during the town’s political and social intrigue. And it is complicated further by the five children. Andrew is buddies with Fats, and is in love with Gaia, who is best buddies with Sukhvinder. Meanwwhile, Fats has a continuing affair with Krystal, who wants to have a child in order to escape her family. And the still further complication is that each of these five children has a major problem with his or her parents.

In sum, I was impressed and absorbed by this portrait of a town and its families in conflict. But then “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” enters, leaving scandalous messages about the parish council and its candidates on the council’s website. Now, the more significant plotting of the novel truly begins, for these messages are being left, we know, by the three children, Andrew, Fats, and Sukhvinder, to revenge themselves on their parents. It is a unique plot device that is credible and certainly is in keeping with modern technology, yet it also reflects, in its way, the hand of the author—an author who has just written a classic series of novels about teenagers, the Harry Potter series.

And, indeed, the rest of this novel revolves around the actions of these five teenagers. The political conflict and election now recedes into the background, except for one argumentative but anti-climactic parish council meeting. The novel’s pace also quickens, as the children’s actions replace the verbal altercations of the adults. The final action centers on the desperate actions of Krystal and their impact on her family and on her fellow teenagers.

As I began reading this novel, it seemed that Rowling was determined to convince critics that she could write a true novel for adults. This came across from her portrait of this town, its political situation, and its various families. I sensed she was now writing from a life she knew, as serious writers do, rather than from a life she imagined. Toward the end, however, while I still considered it a valid, serious novel, it seemed to me that a commercial aspect, an emphasis on plot more than on relationships, was seeping in. Finally, the emphasis on the children at the end seemed to reflect the type of characters, the record has shown, she is most comfortable with.

It is this emphasis on the children at the end that most concerns me. The novel began as a portrait of a town, of its hypocrisies and its prejudices. This legitimately included the frustrations of its teenagers with their parents. But these frustratione began to drive the plot, and the reader gradually isn’t sure where the emphasis is meant to lie. Finally, the action of one teenager to take all the blame for the website messages and the death of another seems insufficiently prepared for, seems insufficiently motivated.

Perhaps the one aspect that I agree with in Kakutani’s very negative Times review is that there are no good characters here that the reader can identify with, as there would naturally be in an average small town. All are intended to come alive through their weaknesses. The social worker Kay is a good person at heart, but she is ineffective, and emerges as inconsequential. And Krystal’s goodness is outweighed by her anti-social rebellion. The result is an expose of this town more than a recreation of it. And a novel that leaves us depressed more than exhilarated, having introduced us to characters we would not really want as friends or neighbors.

On the other hand, the teenagers are more interesting as individuals than the adults. The prejudices of the adults could be considered more stereotypical, whereas the teenagers have their own individual problems and react to one another, and talk to one another, in their own individual way. As a result, we get to know them better, understand them better, and so sympathize with them better, even if we are disturbed by much of their conduct and remain unconvinced by their final actions and final fate.

To sum up, this is an admirable, old-fashioned novel about small-town English life, but it is peopled by unsympathetic characters and somewhat manipulated by the author to convey a message of social injustice and personal hypocrisy. It is dominated in the end by children, with whom she seems more comfortable, and who perhaps reflect the experience and emotions of her own past. (November, 2014)