The Pocket Bookclub set a dangerous precedent when we emulated Eleanor Oliphant’s favourite dinner of vodka and pizza. It seemed that on every other page the characters in Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife are drinking Rakija or Rakia. This is essentially fruit brandy from the Balkans which you cannot buy (easily) in Australia. We know because we tried!
I have some cherry brandy I bought for a Christmas trifle but it is not very palatable so we had a shot of Lime Liqueur from Tamborine Mountain Distillery (who by the way make Raki which is an aniseed liqueur from Turkey and not the same as the Rakia we wanted.) That will have to do us.
There was lots of nice food in The Tiger’s Wife. Olives, baklava, baked apples, stuffed peppers, lobster, sunflower seeds, nuts, fresh fish… We at the Pocket Bookclub do like a book full of food.
Food in the book we had not heard of before was pepper biscuits. We had a go at these too. I am not sure if it was the recipe but they were an abject failure. You can see it at the back of the photo looking uninspiring.
So, discussion of food and alcohol over with we can get to the book. Last meeting we talked about everything other than the book. This meeting we had a lot to say about The Tiger’s Wife. We even found the discussion questions enlightening. We usually find them tedious.
This is not my first read of this book and it may not be my last. Reading this book is like running your hand through fresh water. It is a pleasure, you go with the flow, but you can’t grasp it and hold it. You are left wondering, what does it mean, while at the same time not needing to know what it meant.
The Tiger’s Wife is set an unnamed Balkan country, Natalia is crossing to the ‘other side’ to innoculate some orphans, her grandfather has died in a village that is not on any map, and strangers are digging up the vineyard to retrieve a relative’s bones.
The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death. That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and the windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river. The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past — the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else — and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back. For this reason, the living bring their own rituals to a standstill: to welcome the newly loosed spirit, the living will not clean, will not wash or tidy, will not remove the soul’s belongings for forty days, hoping that sentiment and longing will bring it home again, encourage it to return with a message, with a sign, or with forgiveness.
Natalia’s grandma is upset because she did not know her husband was dead. She did not begin the forty days of mourning. She has ironed his shirts and his belongings have not been returned with his body.
Natalia promises to find and retrieve her grandfather’s belongings and as the book passes from the present to the past Natalia also tells the untold story of her grandfather as a boy, the Tiger’s Wife and of the Deathless Man.
Natalia takes us on the journey her grandfather’s soul would have taken in those forty days.
Folklore and superstition sit alongside science and medicine in this book. The Deathless Man’s story owes much to the Godfather Death fairy tale and folklore. Natalia investigates and tells the stories of other important villagers – Luka the Butcher and the Apothecary, and Darisa the Bear, and each starts as though it will a classic hero’s journey but in each story, the character is more destroyed than victorious.
The past is unknowable, Natalia cannot know all the details in the stories she tells but we believe her as she uses these stories from her grandfather’s past to find him.
The value of storytelling is a key theme of this book. When Natalia’s grandfather drags her out of the house in the early hours of the morning to see something wonderous (no spoilers) she says her friends will never believe her, he admonishes her: “You have to think carefully about where you tell it and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?”
I have not even begun to scrape the surface of the layers in this book: the brutality of the zoo animals during the bombings, the powerlessness of the Tiger’s Wife, the power of the tiger, the social and political upheaval of war, and of course, the inevitability of death.
The dead are celebrated. The dead are loved. They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.
I don’t think – I hope – we have not finished talking about his book.