I’m reading Tea Obreht’s new novel The Tiger’s Wife.
This is the sort of book that makes a writer cry with both joy and sorrow. Joy because the writing is so luminous, so simple and beautiful, the stories within stories so straightforward and timeless, and yet not trite. Sorrow because the author was born in 1985 and has written this book before she turned thirty. I would be lucky to write a book like this before I die.
Ms. Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and the book takes place in an unnamed Balkan country still recovering from the devastation of war. In a story of a young doctor’s relationship with her grandfather, she also weaves tales of her childhood, Kipling’s Jungle book, and the mysterious and somewhat supernatural stories her grandfather has told her as truth. These stories alone are worth reading, but the framework she builds around them gives the book its strength. But really, it’s the sort of book you can read sentence by sentence, appreciating them as they show up on the page.
Here is a description of an elephant walking down a silent midnight city street:
“From there, the elephant – the sound and smell of it; the ears folded back against the domed, bouldered head with big-lidded eyes; the arched roll of the spine, falling away into the hips; dry folds of skin shaking around the shoulders and knees as it shifted its weight – seemed to take up the whole street.”
And a description of a meal taken in the small village house of a fisherman and his wife, and their absurd parrot:
“Nada had fried up sardines and two squid, and grilled a few fish that were about the size of a man’s hand, and there was nothing to do but accept her hospitality and cluster around the square table in the kitchen while Barba Ivan poured us two mugs of homemade red wine, and the parrot, still under the cover of the dishrag, burbled to himself and occasionally shrieked out ‘Oh! Hear you thunder? Is that the earth a-shaking?’ and every so often, in answer to his own question, ‘No! ‘Tis not thunder! Nor the earth a-shaking!’”
And, the tiger of the book’s title, a starved zoo animal who escapes when German bombs fall on his zoo in 1941:
“He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss nor succumb to. He did not know what to do with it. His water had dried up, and he rolled and rolled in the stone bed of his trough, in the uneaten bones lying in a corner of the cage, making that long sad sound that tigers make.”
Later the tiger escapes to drift through the streets with refugees from the war:
“Men were walking by him, past him, alongside him, men with fur coats and bags of flour, with sacks of sugar and ceiling fixtures, with faucets, tables, chair legs, upholstery ripped from the walls of ancient Turkish houses that had fallen in the raid. He ignored them all.”
I love these descriptions! I aspire to draw pictures such as these. I think that reading other books while writing your own can be difficult, perhaps dangerous. But if you are reading something very good, and it infects your own writing, can this be a bad thing? the trick is not to despair, after reading something good, but to aspire. I find this hard to do. My friend Judy’s mantra for her book is just three words: “Do the work.” And that’s all we can do, even in the face of The Tiger’s Wife.
I finished chapter nine today, finally. Of course, it’s nothing like the chapter nine in the outline I made last month. But it works. I have a lot of catch-up to do, if I want to make my goal of finishing by September.
“Downstairs, muffled by the towel covering his cage, the parrot said: ‘Wash the bones, bring the body, leave the heart behind.’”