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Literature / The Tiger's Wife

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The Tiger's Wife is a 2011 novel by Téa Obreht, and winner of that year's Orange Prize.

The story is set in the early 21st century, in an unspecified Balkan country which has recently been divided by war. The narrator, Natalia, is a young doctor who goes with her friend Zóra to provide medical aid to a small village across the border, where she encounters some rather strange superstitions. She is also dealing with the recent death of her grandfather, also a doctor, who suffered from a terminal cancer which he kept secret from everyone except her.

The story mixes modern narration with folktales, family anecdotes, and descriptions of the world it inhabits. There are three main plotlines:

  • The story of the eponymous tiger's wife, a deaf-mute girl who lived in the village where Natalia's grandfather grew up. Unable to communicate with the villagers and abused by her husband, who was tricked into marrying her, she forms a bond with a tiger which escapes from a zoo in the City and makes its way to the area.
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  • The story of Gavran Gailé, whom Natalia's grandfather met three times during his life and who apparently cannot age or die; Gavo claims that Death is his uncle, and made him immortal as punishment for saving the woman he loved note .
  • The story of Natalia's youth amidst the war-ravaged City, training as a doctor, and the trip with Zóra, as well as her relationship with her grandfather and coming to terms with his passing.

However, there are also many other stories within these primary plotlines, including extensive backstories of minor characters like Luka and Dariśa, which move more into an omniscient narration, given that there's absolutely no way for Natalia to know them.


The novel provides examples of:

  • Anachronic Order: The story switches between the three main plotlines, all taking place in different time periods, plus any number of shorter subplots, and while the stories of the tiger's wife and the deathless man are dealt with chronologically, Natalia's present-day narration jumps between different points in her life in no particular order.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The girl that Gavo fell in love with is revealed later to be Amana, Luka's friend and sister of the tiger's wife.
    • Also Barba Ivan, if you believe that he was the mora.
  • City with No Name: The country Natalia lives in, the one she visits, and the city she grew up in are never specified. All you need to know is that they used to be the same place - the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
  • The Confidant: Natalia is the only person her grandfather tells that he has terminal cancer, partly because of their close relationship and partly because she, like him, is a doctor and can help him with palliative treatment.
  • Children Forced to Kill: Natalia's grandfather is tricked into poisoning the Tiger's Wife, since he is the only person she trusts. This is one of the main reasons why he becomes a doctor.
  • Disappeared Dad: Natalia's father is conspicuously absent, but no one so much as mentions him, let alone hints at what might have happened.
    • And considering that Natalia has the same surname as her maternal grandfather, it is unlikely that he was ever married to her mother.
  • Domestic Abuse: Luka. It's specified that while his actions are unforgivable, he does have reasons behind them.
  • Downer Ending: For the Tiger's Wife plotline.
  • Due to the Dead: Duré and his family believe this is why they're all getting sick - Duré buried a body years ago without giving it this, and it's haunting them. Now they're obsessively searching for the body, convinced that to heal themselves they need to perform a quasi-religious ritual given to them by a fortune teller.
    Wash the bones, bring the body, leave the heart behind.
  • Freudian Excuse: Luka is an unsympathetic and abusive husband who gets far too enthusiastic about killing the tiger. However, he's a closeted homosexual who was abused by his father and overshadowed by five older brothers; dreamed of being a musician and almost made it in the City; formed a very close platonic relationship with a girl called Amana and agreed to marry her; and was then left by Amana for another man (as it turns out, Gavran Gailé) and tricked by her father into marrying her deaf-mute younger sister, which he didn't find out until after the wedding. After that he lives a lonely existence knowing that his music has been plagiarised by his former friends. The narrator doesn't forgive what he does, but it's difficult not to find him intensely sympathetic.
  • Good Thing You Can Heal: Gavo, who is drowned, shot twice in the head, then drowned again all in the space of about 24 hours. And that's not the worst he's suffered.
  • Implausible Deniability: Natalia refuses to admit to her grandmother that she knew about her grandfather's cancer, even though her grandmother knows perfectly well that she did and is begging her to open up about it.
  • Interspecies Romance: What the superstitious villagers believe is going on between the tiger and the titular character.
  • Magical Realism
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: No one knows if the Tiger's Wife's pregnancy is the result of a random rape or Luka getting drunk enough to actually do the deed. It's hard to judge which one would be worse.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane
  • Meaningful Name: Zóra, who epitomises the younger generation and new, posut-war culture of the country, means "dawn".
    • Gavo may be named after Dobrosav Gavrić, the man who killed Željko Ražnatović, a prominent Serbian mob lord and paramilitary leader who's also known as The Tiger.
  • Memento MacGuffin: Natalia's grandfather's copy of The Jungle Book.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Natalia's grandfather gives fifty dinars to a prostitute who was harassing him as an apology for Natalia being rude to her.
  • No Name Given: Quite a few - the title character, most obviously, as well as Natalia's grandfather, grandmother and mother, and countless minor characters.
  • Nostalgic Narrator: Natalia qualifies as this, despite her youth, given how much of the novel is her looking back on her childhood and teenage years, and her grandfather's stories. Her grandfather is also an indirect example.
  • Only One Name: Literally everyone. Not a single character in the book has their surname given, though patronyms are occasionally used.
  • Pals with Jesus: Gavo is literally Death's nephew, although we are given no details as to how that works.
  • Psychopomp: Gavran Gailé. Also the mora, who is strongly implied to be Barba Ivan.
  • Ruritania: The country where it takes place has elements of this, especially in the parts which take place in the early twentieth century.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Given how much of the novel is either Natalia talking about her grandfather or stories told to Natalia by her grandfather, you could make a very good case for him being the real protagonist.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Most of the really fantastic elements are being related at second- or third-hand.
  • The Woobie: The Tiger's Wife. Not only is she mute and abused because of her disability, but she is forcibly married to Luka, a situation neither of them is happy with. Luka beats her so badly that she nearly dies at least once, and when Luka is killed she is ostracized by the village even more than before. Regardless of how she got pregnant, the options are all pretty horrifying, and finally she is poisoned by Natalia's grandfather, the only friend she had.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Gavo doesn't have too much of a problem with it by the time we meet him, but he certainly doesn't condone the idea.


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