Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Tiger's Wife as good as advertised

Book 38: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

I can admit I was wrong. I just don't like to do so.

I missed The Tiger's Wife when it was released to much acclaim in 2011. And, as the months went by, I became increasingly skeptical that the book could be as good as so many critics and readers insisted it was.

After all, the author, Serbian-born Tea Obreht, was only in her mid 20s when the book -- her first -- made its debut. What could she know? About life or writing books?

The Tiger's Wife was nominated for a National Book Award and won the Orange Prize -- making Obreht the youngest author ever to win the prestigious award. She was also named one of The New Yorker's 20 under 40.

Still, I wasn't convinced, and then I read the book.  

I was wrong. Very wrong. The Tiger's Wife is not good. It's great.

Obreht combines magical realism and folklore with a gritty realism as a young doctor shares the story of her grandfather's life and her relationship with him.  The story, set in an unnamed Balkan country, encompasses both the present and the past of her grandfather's childhood.

Obreht's narrator seeks to understand her grandfather, and their relationship, through the stories he told her. Stories of a "deathless man" whom the grandfather meets on several occasions in his life and of a young woman from the grandfather's village, a deaf mute, who befriends a tiger escaped from a zoo.

The Tiger's Wife is about how we use stories to shape the narrative of our lives.  And about how those stories may be passed from generation to generation, instilling our lives with purpose and meaning. And it is also about how we can come to understand both others and ourselves through the stories that are important to us.

The Tiger's Wife is a singular work of beauty and power.

Book 40: The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

Like The Tiger's Wife, The Death of Bees is a first novel.  That's about the only quality these two books share.

The Death of Bees is hugely disappointing. It is the story of two sisters who have buried their parents in the backyard.  It's not immediately clear how the parents died, although that mystery is resolved in the course of the story.

The sisters are in in their early teens and conceal their parents' deaths so they can remain together.

It is in constructing the characters of the sisters that O'Donnell fails badly. 

One sister, the oldest, is a caricature. She's a slag -- a free-spirited, promiscuous girl -- who rejects authority. Did I mention that she's very smart? She doesn't even need to study to get good grades. And, really, she has a heart of gold.

The youngest sister is weird. People think she's simple, although she's not. She merely chooses to talk like a character from a penny dreadful.

One character we've seen a thousand times before. The other character is just unbelievable.  The result is that the reader never cares about either sister or the resolution of this dismal novel.

The Tiger's Wife is that good. The Death of Bees is that bad.

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