I was some place in the midst of Tea Obreht’s novel The Tiger’s Wife when it was announced winner of the Orange Prize for Best Fiction. I was hardly surprised, given the unexceptionally rave entrance she has enjoyed into the literary fold – she made The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list with no published work to her name; and the youngest on that list at 25. Yugoslavian by birth, her family left the country when she was 7; Obreht taught herself English by watching Disney films.
The awesome thing about it all is that she deserves it. The Tiger’s Wife is a mesmerizing feat of work that combines elements of Magical Realism and Fabulism to tell the war-time stories of a Yugoslavian doctor Natalia’s unique relationship with her recently-deceased grandfather.
Everything in Obreht’s book has character; everything! The guns, the dogs, the peasants, the deathless man and of course, the tiger. Each has an incredible back-story, little anecdotes that are as exquisitely wrought and entertaining as they are imperative to the main story. Obreht is not a writer. She is a masterful crafter of stories.
Another contender for the Orange Prize this year was Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, which I read after it took the Commonwealth Writer’s honor in May. The Memory of Love is an incredible book in its own right.
Incidentally, much like The Tiger’s Wife, it goes between two stories of war – this time, in Sierra Leone: in the 1960s and the 1990s. The 90s are represented by a young surgeon Kai Mansaray who is haunted by memories of the war, and torn over his decision to leave Sierra Leone for a better life elsewhere. He forms a friendship with a British psychiatrist Adrian Lockheart, through which we eventually learn of the terrible things he saw and did in the war.
It is also through Adrian’s work at the asylum that we learn of the psychological effects of war on ordinary people like Agnes and Adecali, witnesses to unspeakable horrors. Literally unspeakable. Adrian slowly coaxes stories out of them, which would otherwise have gone untold. And this is the crux of Forna’s book –
“It was almost as though they were afraid of being implicated in the circumstance of their own lives. Questions discomfit them. Remembering, talking … it’s as though the entire nation is sworn to some terrible secret.”
It is only Elias Cole, a professor on his deathbed, who willingly narrates to us a compelling story of betrayal and injustice set in the Sierra Leone of the 60s. Elias Cole is despicable – I haven’t met such an amoral character since Nabokov’s Humbert-Humbert. While spewing my disgust on Twitter, Forna actually replied to say she was “glad. It means [my] moral compass is in good working order.” 🙂
And yet both Cole and Adrian’s asylum patients suffer what Forna calls the ‘fragmentation of conscience’ – he is tortured by the omissions of his history; they are tortured by the acts they are forced to commit.
The Memory of Love struggles a little to get off the ground, but on the whole, Forna has a very important message about post-war effects on the psyche of a nation. The Tiger’s Wife, on the other hand, is a thrill from start to finish which will leave you questioning superstition and science, and what it means to be an outcast.
I heartily recommend both books!