Thank goodness for other reviewers with more patience than me – I was able to understand more about the book in an hour browsing the discussion/review pages on Goodreads than 3 weeks wrestling with the Tiger. After checking others’ views on the book to make sure it wasn’t entirely my fault that the Tiger and I didn’t bond, here’s the criticisms I still maintain:
And using bullet points, because I love ‘em:
– The fables: It’s not that I can’t do magic realism, I absolutely can. Marquez; Allende; Esquivel; Saramago; Yes please, serve me up. It’s not even that ‘The Deathless Man’ and ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ are empty stories – the opposite in fact. The problem is a) the stilted nature in which the fables are told b) the link between the two central fables being so precarious as to be utterly unconvincing – is it magic realism or isn’t it? I don’t think Obreht can decide and c) the fables are buried, to the extent that you feel as though they are being deliberately concealed from you, in a mountain of pointless (though A+) descriptions about inanimate objects (I’ll get to that later, it deserves its own bullet point).
– Boredom: Other brave reviewers have already said it; even ones who have been so generous as to still dole out 3 and 4 stars. And that is that it all feels a bit pointless. What’s the story actually about? What am I left with (apart from a headache?). If you ask me in two weeks I flat out just won’t know.
– “A lack of emotion”: (That’s actually a quote from the The Guardian’s review). Lets use some concrete examples. Natalia and Zora? Their friendship, apparently as old as they are, has about as much depth to it as puddle of water. Why wouldn’t Natalia share the news of her Grandfather’s death with her so-called “best friend”? What life experiences had they been through that made them the kind of kids that get kicks out of dissecting, in fairly gruesome circumstances, pigs hearts? Not your average teenage girls, surely – but we wouldn’t know because Natalia tells us nothing about what makes her tick (let alone the elusive chain-smoking Zora). And Natalia’s Grandfather, arguably the most important character in the book – why are there great gaping holes in what we know about his life? We have such incredible (read “bbbooooring”) detail surrounding Luka, his mother, his brothers, his father, his musical aspirations, his ten year sabbatical and tragic love songs that aren’t even borne out of his own experiences, and for what? I think it is supposed to explain why he ultimately turned into a henous wife-beating monster. Er, sorry, no – it doesn’t actually. Just as all the inane detail (pages and pages) about Darisa The Bear’s childhood and how it shaped him in becoming a hunter of such great repute in later life – I still fail to see how any of this early detail was relevant to the whole of the story. Or maybe there was no point, and that is the point – “we’re just telling stories”. Oh, Ok!! But, just so you know, it’s freaking boring! In my view, the balance of power in this novel is held by the wrong characters – the depth is given to stories that frankly don’t deserve it, while complete superficiality (at best) is all that is afforded to the stories that actually matter.
– The long, long-winded descriptions: Yes, Obreht can write. If this is an exercise in cramming adjectives into sentences (or WOW words, as we call them in Year 2), yep, she succeeded. And she’s 25, the youngest ever Orange Prize winner. Ok, I get it, she’s talented! But what use is this without a real life actual story to tell? (see above). Primarily, Obreht’s talent is directed towards describing places, objects, and events, (without emotion, as I said before) in the kind of detail only God would notice. And THAT there is probably my main criticism of the book – because remember, we’re dealing with a first person narrative. I’m sorry, but a person does not walk into a room and take notice of the way a painting sits half an inch to the left on a wall covered in a fine film of whoknowswhat while some animal scratches beneath the heavy brown floor boards, the ones with the rusty nails protruding out of them threateningly. Here’s an example (much better than mine, naturally).
“The street below dead-ended in a flattened patch of pale grass, bordered on either side by netless goal frames. A slide and some tire swings had been set up on the lip of a wheat field that caught the afternoon light and held it in a shivering glare. Beyond that lay the graveyard, white crosses turned out toward the sea. The wind had subsided, and the road was deserted except for a single motted goat, tethered to the fence post of what looked like an enormous metal box opposite the clinic. The BEER sign braced against an oil drum under the awning was to be believed, this was the bar”.
Well written? Yes. Riveting? No. Even more implausibly, the vast majority of the time Natalia is recalling this detail based on what she has heard second, third, even fourth hand – or from her grandfather eons earlier. Even if I am to suppose Natalia has some super-human memory that allows her to recall all these minor threads in minute detail, I can’t get past the idea that anyone walks around (doing nothing, going nowhere) “thinking” to themselves this way. I admit plenty of excellent books combine first person narrative with contextual descriptions of scene or atmosophere (I just finished When God Was a Rabbit – perfect example of the right balance) – but it’s usually very subtle. Broken up with dialogue, events, oooh, I don’t know – something actually happening once in a while. But Obreht’s descriptive passages can go on for pages and pages and none of it adds anything at all to the PLOT (it’s not an evil word people). It reminded me of reading a police report, or court transcript. A flowery one, to be sure, but that is the kind mundane observations and recollection of events that you’re wading through. I needed more action, more convincing dialogue. Natalia was a person herself without a story, without a VOICE of her own; how ironic is that, being that it’s a story about stories. And then when Natalia gets on to recounting what she’s been able to glean from the memories of the villagers still living today, and also from her Grandfather based on what he told her before he died, that’s when my raised eyebrow really begins to hurt. It’s woolly and impossible to tether.
– And then there’s the grating fact that it’s devoid of place. The country, the city, the warring factions, all nameless. Why? Why? Why?
I probably didn’t need to write such a long review. Goodness knows I already want the last three weeks of precious book reading time back. I could have just said “when you have to go to Goodreads and read several other reviews to work out what the book was really saying, there’s a problem”.