When the blacksmith sets out to hunt for an escaped tiger terrorising the remote Balkan mountain village of Galina, he does not take a gun.
He takes an Ottoman musket which came from a Sultan's bodyguard-turned-peddler, from whom it was stolen by a highwayman, then recovered by his mistress after his murder and given to a milk boy who lost his life in an ill-fated uprising. The musket was hung in the bey's trophy room, from where it was looted when the citadel fell, switching hands in a skirmish between peasants and the Turkish militia, and falling into the possession of the blacksmith's grandfather.
With that, Téa Obreht condenses two centuries of history into a few paragraphs.
There are many such sidetracks in her debut novel, The Tiger's Wife. It is a dense work, with multiple storylines drawing on folklore, superstition, rituals and traditions. Even minor characters come with rich and engaging back stories, illuminating their motivations and personal grudges.
I enjoyed these little diversions, even if they sometimes seem to stray a little too far from the main action. It's a clever way of telling the reader what they need to know to understand the novel. They add a real sense of scope to the novel, setting it firmly in its historical context and creating a strong sense of time and place.
Obreht explores many powerful ideas which stayed with me after I closed the book at night. I pondered the "heavy birthright" of war - what it means to live with it and then without it, and to realise that war was really there all along. I thought about the clash between science and superstition, and the importance of ritual in how we approach death and loss.
She also gives incredibly vivid descriptions. As one of our Fiction Addiction readers commented, you can almost "see and smell" the tiger when it appears through the dark with a smell of thick dark musk and a "soft traveling thump" of great velvet paws. She writes with care and skill, and a beauty all the more remarkable when you consider that English is not her mother tongue.
But all this leads to quite a complicated narrative. I mentioned in my earlier blog that I have read the book twice. The book is so jam-packed, that when I turned the final leaf I did not feel that I had taken it all in. So I began again, and this time, with the plot jigsaw in place and the stories clearly connected, I enjoyed the book more, savouring each delicious phrase, each unexpected diversion.
At the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival earlier this month, Téa Obreht spoke about how the novel evolved from a "failed short story", spiralling through other stories to become the novel. Herald on Sunday reviewer Nicky Pellegrino wrote that the problem with this approach is that you can "see the joins".
To an extent I agree. The stories are somewhat disjointed. It's also true that this review is more favourable than if I had written it after a single reading.
I'm not sure whether that says more about Obreht as a writer or me as a reader, but I certainly would not have read it a second time unless it had intrigued me sufficiently to justify the reread.
The Tiger's Wife is an ambitious novel and it is worth taking the time to read it slowly. Savouring the luscious language and pondering the ideas along the way.
On Tuesday Bronwyn will wrap up the month with her review of When God Was a Rabbit and then it's on to our June picks. After much prevarication, I've finally settled on The Beauty of Humanity Movement, by Camilla Gibb, as seen here. I'll be introducing it in my next blog.