Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is a surprise choice to win the Orange Prize, says Philip Hensher.
The Orange Prize has a slightly shaky track record in picking first-rate books.
There have been some excellent winners, like Helen Dunmore, Barbara Kingsolver, and Marilynne Robinson, and some really superb shortlists. 2006, which listed Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Ali Smith, Nicole Krauss and Hilary Mantel, stands out as exceptional.
On the other hand, some past winners looked very odd at the time, and haven’t held up since.
Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is rather an unexpected choice. It is a first novel from a much-heralded Serbian-American novelist. Ms Obreht was acclaimed as one of the best American writers under 40 by the New Yorker before her novel’s publication. Her stories have been picked up by the Atlantic and Best American Short Stories 2010, and by the Guardian in this country.
The Tiger’s Wife is a story of the Balkan conflicts, narrated by a young Serbian doctor. The story kicks off with the mysterious death of the woman narrator’s grandfather in unexpected circumstances, and winds back into his early history, involving an escaped tiger and stories of previous conflicts.
It’s a competent book, but readers might find it a surprising one to be singled out in this way. It has the familiar expertise of the American creative-writing course on which Ms Obreht studied and taught.
It deals with an appropriately significant, large-scale conflict in an indirect way, through family narratives, a love across ethnic barriers, and the exotic irruption of a symbolically-laden tiger. The world is solidly conjured through accumulations of everyday domestic detail.
Unfamiliar properties, such as the Yugoslav drink rakija, and the world of thought are conventionally rendered in italics, to make them safe for readers of English.
A degree of visible calculation, however, might make The Tiger’s Wifefall short as a popular success, despite its professional surface.
And it suffers slightly from banality in the writing. The literary novel has its own dreaded clichés by now – “These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life” – to which Ms Obreht adds universal clichés – “Dobravka was a woman possessed”. Her editor might have told her not to use the expression “I thought to myself,” too.
Still, though there were more strongly flavoured and risk-taking books in contention for the Orange prize this year, Ms Obreht has at least stretched herself in taking on so large a subject for her first novel. If she had managed to render her interesting topic with an individual and striking voice, she would have produced something lasting as well as prize-winning.
By Philip Hensher – 08 Jun 2011 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/8564092/Tea-Obrehts-The-Tigers-Wife-is-competent-but-lapses-into-literary-cliches.html