'Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs...' A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic - Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book. Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather's death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realises he may have died searching for 'the deathless man', a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger's wife.
This book comes with lots of plaudits from the critics and the Orange prize no less. But it seems to divide the readers' reviews on Amazon, some loved it, some hated it and some who hated it blamed this on it being magic realism. Where do I sit? Somewhere in the middle. I was frustrated by the book, which could have been great but somehow left me wanting.
The book explores big themes through the personal. Set in the Balkan wars it is a study of how people deal with death - Natalia's response to her grandfather's death, the family searching for a body in the vineyard and her grandfather's attitude to the death as expressed through his tales of the deathless man, the tiger's wife and the striking account of the hotel meal in a town about to overrun by the Serbian militia. I am sure there were all sorts of references and symbolism that someone from the Balkans would have recognized and which alas passed me by, which was frustrating, if inevitable.
It is also a tale about the meeting of superstitions and science and perhaps the death of the former. This is embodied in Natalia's grandfather, a man of science and yet a teller of tales. So this was a perfect book for the magic realism treatment. So why did I not love it?
The answer is that somehow I did not engage in the book. Despite the fact that nearly every character seemed to have several paragraphs of backstory I remained detached. I know there is a school of thought that writers should draw even minor characters fully, but it is not one I subscribe to, especially if excess of backstory has the effect of breaking up the flow of the story. Ironically I did want more about the character of Natalia. She has just lost her grandfather, but we don't feel her grief nor her fears about lying to her grandmother about it. We didn't really get a feel for her relationship with her friend. But I did understand the relationship between the tiger and his wife, which perhaps says something about the author's interests.