Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tea Obreht's The Tigers Wife

It seems we only have room in media for one writer per year. It is a hard and fast quota, and rarely deviated from, and has little regard for the quality of their work. Last year it was Jonathan Franzen, as much for his rightly hailed Freedom as for the controversy over its praising. Steig Larsson came the year before him. JK Rowling actually took three years, shutting out almost everyone else except for literary villain James Frey. This year will undoubtedly be looked at as the year of Tea Obreht, who, while not quite making magazine covers, has been the center of much literary attention. Earlier this month, Obreht was awarded The Orange Prize for her extraordinary first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, capping off a year of acclaim and wild press coverage. The Orange Prize celebrates “excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing from throughout the world,” as has previously been given to such major talents as Marilynn Robinson and Zadie Smith, who, incidentally, was the writer of 2000. Obreht’s award is not only notable because she is a first-time novelist, but for her age. She is currently 25 and the youngest writer to have won the award, which only adds to her allure as a new story. Zadie Smith makes for fine fellow-award-winning company with Obreht. Smith experienced massive acclaim leading up to and following the publication of her first novel, White Teeth, and was hailed as the a great talent to watch at the age of 21. Obreht, who also made news last year as one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40,” has received a near unprecedented amount of attention, much of it before her novel’s publication. While the hype for the “Next Big Thing” usually follows a predictable rise and fall course, beginning with lauds and ending with a fizz-out of disappointment (Smith’s The Autograph Man was met with skepticism and poor reviews, but was quickly reversed after her luminous On Beauty), Obreht is the real deal. Her novel, about a young Balkan woman’s search for the cause of her grandfather’s death, mixes the horror of a war torn country with magical realism, an initially eye-rolling concept. Anyone who suffered through Jonathan Safron Foer’s Extremly Loud and Incredibly Close knows the dangers of getting invested in such a precocious concept, and can be forgiven for ignoring the attention The Tiger’s Wife has received. What sets Obreht’s novel apart, however, is the remarkable maturity of her writing. Obrech packs her novel with zoos, stories within stories, escaped tigers, and an immortal figure known as “the deathless man,” but never once does the novel feel cloying. Obreht is a story-teller at heart, but exudes such command and control over her prose as to never allow that story-teller’s impulse for the fantastical to take over. Her novel is grounded in its weight, and the magical elements she conjures serves the novel’s story, and not the other way around, a trap another “20 under 40” writer, Karen Russel, got caught in earlier this year with her also-hyped debut Swamplandia! Russel’s novel is the story of a young Florida alligator wrestler who is trying to keep her family’s dying amusement park alive. Like The Tiger’s Wife, there are elements of the fantastic, such as the ghost-human love story that centers the novel. But while the novel is charming and Russel is a fine writer, Swamplandia! fails not because Russel is unable to handle the magic realism she describes in the Florida Everglades, but because those elements push the novels’ already quirky premise over the edge into near absurdity. (A review in Bookforum called Swamplandia! a “YA novel disguised as literary fiction,” a statement that must have been fun to write, but grossly unfair and elitist.) That absurdity is nowhere present in The Tiger’s Wife. The reader wholly accepts Obreht’s fictional plot of land, and the dead and undead that lie therein. She is so successful in this regard that complaining about the novel’s several small structural flaws seems irrelevant. It is easy to forgive the small quibbles after becoming so deeply entrenched in Obreht’s elegant and masterful voice. The Tiger’s Wife is beautifully constructed, layering its rich theme of the stories we tell ourselves to survive with perfect tone. Obreht knows character, and is able to earn our sympathies for even the cruelest of characters. She captures the joys and sorrows of each of her characters so exquisitely that it can be easy for the reader to find sympathy with even the most heartless of characters, such as Luka the Butcher, an abusive husband at the center of the novel. Luka’s story, one of many in a novel of individual stories, is the clearest example of Obreht’s talent. Deviating from the main plot of the story, the butcher’s section is rich, heartbreaking, but not too much of spectacle as to become a distraction. Each of her characters are given tremendous care, and nowhere does the novel feel overburdened with excess, something a lesser writer would not be able to accomplish. Did I mention she was 24? Other writers may make news this year, but The Tiger’s Wife is a novel to truly celebrate.

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