Review: Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and the power of fable

Israeli Cover of The Tiger's Wife - quite impressive

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the beautiful Tea Obreht and her stunning debut The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht was the youngest ever writer to win the Orange Prize and she was named one of The New Yorker‘s 20 under 40. More significantly, The Tiger’s Wifehas appeared on almost every list of the best books of 2011, both commercial and reader-based, and high-brow intellectual and literary.

This last seems to highlight the way that though the book appeals to a wide range of people (it has spent many weeks in the New York Times bestseller list, and has been number 1 on the ABA Indie Bestseller list for almost 20 weeks), it is also receiving praise from critics and prestigious reviewers. This combination of commercial potential and literary value seems hard to find – so what is the secret of The Tiger’s Wife?

The answer is difficult to describe. The book doesn’t exactly have a simple and clear plot, and Obreht’s subject matter stretches from the universality of death to the specificity of the war-torn Balkan experience. Her characters are sometimes mythical and sometimes real, and sometimes both at the same time.

On a simple level, you might say that this is a book about a woman coming to terms with the death of a beloved grandfather, and a country coming to terms with a bloody past, but that would be to ignore the most wonderful thing about the book – Obreht’s talent in using fable to “deliver a truth histories can’t touch“.

Understanding the magic of The Tiger’s Wife goes to the very heart of understanding why we read fairy tales – what emotional and human realities they can reveal to us in ways that normal writing cannot.

Albert Einstein claimed “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” G. K. Chesterton wrote that “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

By refusing to limit herself to realistic writing, Obreht transforms the tragedies of Balkan history and the struggle of one woman to commemorate her grandfather’s life into an emotional truth we can all share in and identify with. Not only this, she delivers a truth that is at once ‘real’ and believable, and also hopeful.

But Obreht’s achievement is even more complex than that, since she never lets her story fall into fable completely. Instead, by resolutely standing on the thin line between realism and fable, Obreht highlights the way that the two are necessary to each other. The conflict between science and superstition that the book deals with – both stylistically and through it’s content – is never resolved precisely because we need both in life. The breathtaking end of the book works exactly like this, leaving the reader stranded between these two poles of life and forcing them to keep thinking about the book for hours afterwards.

Perhaps the real secret to enjoying The Tiger’s Wife is by following W. H. Auden’s advice: “The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” Throw yourself into The Tiger’s Wife, and it will reward you with a stunning reading experience and a moving emotional truth.

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Review: Do We Need To Talk About Kevin?

Finally a review not only for a book that has already been published, but for one that’s been around for a while. I seem to be late to this particular party.

Before it was accepted for publication, Lionel Shriver’s dark and provocative book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, was rejected by over 30 publishers. They objected that the narrator – Eva – was ‘unattractive,’ and that no one would want to read about a mother who failed to form a bond with her son, who, in fact, disliked him.

Indeed, it’s not an easy book. Apart from picking apart traditional ideas about motherhood, the book is ultimately about the brutal, cold-blooded, and premeditated murder of 7 high school students, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker by one, 15 year-old Kevin Katchadourian.

Unlike other fiction books on the subject of high school killings – like Jodi Piccoult’s Nineteen Minutes – We Need To Talk About Kevin doesn’t try and make us understand the killer’s viewpoint, painting him as an outcast, a victim of school bullying who is lashing out at his tormentors. Instead, Shriver asks whether parents can be blamed for their children’s actions. Are you born a psychopath? Or does your upbringing make you into one? Is it Eva’s bad mothering that causes Kevin to become a mass murderer?

Despite all this, the book became a sensation. With an initial publicity budget near zero, the book started by selling slowly, until word of mouth turned it into a US, and then an international, bestseller. Then in 2005, it won the Orange Prize for fiction and now the film adaptation is the star of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Everyone, it seems, is talking about Kevin.

Is it just the shocking and appalling content that has people hooked? Apparently not. Shriver’s prose is not only finely-honed and polished, it also often richly poetic. Her attention to detail is legendary and is used to great effect in the novel. I have read complaints that the book reads as if Shriver sat down with a thesaurus and used it at every opportunity, but I associated her wide vocabulary more with a need to be exact than a desire to show off. Perhaps that’s because I imagine I would write similarly myself. Her characters might not be likeable – Kevin is truly disturbing and Eva resolutely refuses to bow to our expectations of her innate, maternal core (which troublingly I didn’t take issue with at all, I might hate a child like Kevin too) – but they are compelling, and despite their strangeness, somehow feel vividly real. In short, like the film, the book is compulsive and chilling, and if you are disquieted, you are also unable to stop.

One wise reviewer has said that Shriver forces her readers to look inside themselves and then run away from what they find. It’s true, the book presents some uncomfortable truths to its reader, not just about juvenile murder, but also about motherhood and nature versus nurture. It breaks taboos and deals with difficult, complex issues in fine, highly literary language, and (perhaps most worryingly of all), refuses to give the readers an easy answer on who is to blame for a child’s murderous actions. As Shriver says, the verdict is up to the reader. One thing is for sure, it seems we must, indeed, talk about Kevin.

Review: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

This book is being published in England by my idols Virago Press, and should be on UK shelves by end of March. The Hebrew edition will be published by ours truly, but I don’t yet have a tentative date. Will post when I do…

 

Grace Winter, newly married to the rich and handsome Henry, is one of 39 survivors on a lifeboat after the wreck of the Empress Alexandra. The book opens with her standing trial for murder along with two of the other female survivors, though we don’t know of whom or any of the other circumstances, and the book returns immediately to the moments following the shipwreck. Luckily, one of the 39 on the lifeboat was Mr. Hardie, a sailor from the ship who takes immediate control of the boat and its passengers given his knowledge of the sea and clear thinking in a crisis. At first he insists on their remaining near the wreckage to ensure that they will be picked up by the inevitable rescuers, but as more days pass and there is no apparent rescue attempt, he allows that they may as well try and sail for land. As the days pass Hardie warns his charges that they are at over-capacity, and that in the event of bad weather the boat will capsize. He suggests volunteers to throw themselves overboard for the good of those left in the boat, and thus begins the main moral dilemma of the book. The narrative continues to switch between Grace standing trial and the torturous, sometimes hallucinatory days in the lifeboat, where the passengers by turns console and connive against one another. Won’t give much more away, but suffice it to say Rogan keeps the reader engaged in the plot despite the limitations of her setting (which actually work for her, in my opinion) and the temptation to go overboard (‘scuse the pun) with being philosophical.

The Lifeboat is a tightly plotted novel that works both as a psychological thriller and as story addressing an impossible moral dilemma. The highly particular circumstances giving rise to this dilemma do nothing to reduce its relevance or immediacy to a reader, and the ‘closed-room’ setting of a lifeboat allows Rogan to explore the dynamics of human relationships at their most real and raw. This she does skillfully, mediating everything through Grace’s strange passivity so that it feels both removed and hyperreal.

It’s also a book about unreliable narrators and unstable, variable versions of the same events. Though Grace is a likeable narrator, she doesn’t come across as reliable – even by her own estimation. She frequently asserts her own uncertainty regarding her memories of the events in the lifeboat, but the reader (and those around her) are never quite sure when she is posturing and when she is truly in the dark about her own motivations or actions.

What Rogan does particularly well is show how Grace’s ‘God helps those who help themselves’ philosophy applies both to her situation pre and post shipwreck. This in turn makes Grace (with all her unreliability) very credible and convincing, and the fine balance Rogan strikes between depicting her admirable tenacity in insisting on taking control of her life and her acceptance of her own vulnerability is pitched perfectly (again, no pun intended…they’re all just bobbing up unintentionally).

The other characters are also well drawn, but Rogan’s real success lies in how she portrays the relationships and interactions between the different personalities on the boat. These are consistently complex, convincing and engaging, and Rogan manages to make them both inevitable in the context of the psyches she has assembled, and also strangely supernatural – as with Mrs. Grant’s curious hold on the passengers of the boat, by turns appearing almost mystical and at others merely the absolute power a parent holds over their dependents.

Above all, instead of using the characters as mouthpieces for philosophical discussions of the moral dilemmas produced by this life or death situation, Rogan turns them into desperate children who decide based less on careful consideration and dry discussion than impetuosity, fear, caprice or the desire for approval.

The structure of the book also functions perfectly to highlight the slow passing of the days and the nights in the lifeboat, and the juxtaposition between the moral question playing out in the boat and then rehashed in the courtroom dramatizes precisely one of the central questions Rogan seems to be asking in the book – how do certain situations impact our ideas about what is acceptable and what is not.

The book is not without its entertaining moments, and Rogan’s writing is accomplished, the dialogue feeling authentically ‘of’ the historical period. There were a couple of moments where Grace seemed to be describing moments straight of Titanic, but the believability of Rogan’ setting didn’t suffer as a result. The Lifeboat was a quick, clever read and I would recommend keeping an ear to the ground for its publication.

For more info on the book or the author, click here.

Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

This book stands for one of the best things about my job, when among the good and the bad you come across something truly gem-like. The book isn’t out yet but I highly recommend keeping your eyes peeled for it. Click here for the author’s blog and more info about his work. Below is the ‘official’ blurb and then my take on the book.

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set in a nearly abandoned hospital in war-torn Chechnya, where Sunni Muslim separatists are waging a desperate campaign against Russian forces responsible for the death or “disappearance” of hundreds of thousands of Chechen loyalists. Staffed only by a tough-minded doctor who has returned from England in search of her missing sister, the hospital becomes a refuge for an orphaned girl and the neighbor who rescues her.In the final days of December 2004 in the village of Eldár, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces in the middle of night. Fearing for her life, their neighbor Akhmed – a failed physician – flees with her to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja Ivanova Stretsy, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees.  Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonya reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness which unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate. The plot hinges on two surprising elements: a Russian pistol and a souvenir from Buckingham Palace.”

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beautifully written. Marra deals with horrific scenes of torture and humiliation with a delicate poignancy that doesn’t detract from the horror but rather clarifies and intensifies it. Even the scene where Khassan holds a knife to his sleeping son’s throat is shot through with so much love that the reader feels every agony of Khassan’s dilemma as if it were their own. Marra offers the reader no easy allegiances, and his characters fail each other time and again. But they also make incredible sacrifices for one another, and ultimately his vision is a redemptive one.

His plot is well-crafted, slowly revealing the connections existing between the characters that had been there all along almost without their knowledge. He does a good job of balancing between how much the reader versus the characters know, so that though the reader is usually one step ahead they are also kept in anticipation of the final revelation. Another success of the book is Marra’s tendency to slide into mini-histories and mini-futures of incidental characters. He will suddenly digress away from dialogue or plot to remark that it has been ‘3 years, 2 months since x did y,’ or that in ’30 years time x would return to this spot with her children.’ This locates the novel in the middle of a long string of events and circumstances, choices and coincidences (a constellation of vital phenomena perhaps) that make up the collective story of the Chechen people. This technique also highlights the act of storytelling and self-narrativizing that all the characters do within the novel, as they attempt to try and find a way to deal with their reality.

While Marra’s plot effortlessly weaves together diverse characters, backstories, locations and even objects, the real wonder of the book is his writing.  His use of language is skillful, sharply-honed and a pleasure to read. He manages to strike the right balance between incredibly haunting language and the exigencies of keeping the plot moving. His imagery is by turns moving and beautiful – ‘his lips were two slats of sunlight on her forehead’ – absurdly comic, or horrific – ‘two spoonfuls were missing from his face’ – but always innovative and enjoyable. He describes family relationships, societal relationships and the bonds between friends very realistically, and never allows himself or the reader to sympathize too easily with any character.  The book establishes a good pace and then maintains it, and the characters are engaging and gripping enough that even their inner reflections make for compelling reading.

Though I’m not one for recommending a book because it’s about a subject you ‘really ought to know more about,’ the fact that Marra’s novel so effectively portrays the Chechen experience is yet another compelling reason to read this book. An all round winner.