Note: Innogen and the Hungry Half is still on hiatus, but should resume normal posting next week. Until then, a throwback to the original purpose of Magpie & Whale: the personal essay!
As I was reading The Tiger’s Wife this month, I spent a lot of time being angry at Téa Obreht for being a year younger than me. Her author portrait glows. She’s poised, talented, wise, articulate—and an angelic blonde with wide, liquid eyes. Born in 1985! What right does she have to be so accomplished, before me?
I recognize this jealousy. I felt it every time I was confronted with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, which I refused to read for years, the principle being that wunderkinder are a pain in the ass. Of course, once I did read it, I was staggered by how good it was, and determined to push myself more, to experiment with form and style and structure, to break out of linear storytelling, to embrace the messiness of human emotions more fully. The Tiger’s Wife has the luck to come after my encounter with Everything Is Illuminated, so my resolve is not quite so fiery, but it’s absolutely a magnificent book that makes me want to try harder, farther and wider.
This isn’t going to be a book review so much as a book reaction. I will say that The Tiger’s Wife is intricate, interconnected, restrained, vivid, fully felt and richly realized, and that it’s well worth your time. (Also: that certain repetitions began to bore me after a point; certain choices felt unnecessary and dulled the consequences that resulted; the end, to me, did not match the rest of the story in scope or depth or power, but your mileage may vary.) I am very much excited to see Téa Obreht continue to write: she should have a long, fruitful and amazing career, and despite her age (fie!), I wish her very, very well.
Tangled up with this fixation on Obreht’s age is a question I keep asking myself: What could I write, if I was to try something like this? Because The Tiger’s Wife is very much the product of growing up in and with the Balkans. It deals with wars, survivors, myths, superstitions, borders, local lore, traditions, families, religion and death, all in a context that I simply haven’t experienced. I grew up a faculty brat in a university town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I had no relatives in the area—our family is quite far-flung, though I grew up constantly surrounded by stories. Still, the things that give my life texture are different than Obreht’s, and it’s easy to feel somewhat shy about them, when, in comparison, they seem so American, and of a certain strain that’s not short of representation.
Of course, there’s nothing to be done about where we both were born and have lived our lives. And The Tiger’s Wife isn’t a book I would have written for reasons other than biographical ones. Though it contains a strain of magical realism, I found myself frustrated by how limited that aspect of the story was. It flirts with the fantastic, but at moments, I wished—much as she often frustrates me—for Cat Valente to take over the story. In her hands, the stories and the act of telling the stories would have taken on a life and hue of their own, living and breathing as more than cultural illustrations, things people do. As they emerged, the stories would have warped the story itself. That wasn’t their purpose with The Tiger’s Wife; in ways, it was explicitly the opposite.
Which led me to another question: What moves people to write literary fiction? This isn’t entirely facetious, and it’s not just because I have no use for Jonathan Franzen. I don’t understand the appeal of a lot of contemporary literary fiction. Historical fiction, Great Books/“classics,” genre fiction (even of the non-magical variety, like mysteries or satire)—I love it! But straight treatments of human topics somehow don’t get me where I live like the stranger takes do, and I’m not sold on the idea that the plot of a “literary” novel inherently lives beneath the surface, requiring more work from the reader. Still, the point remains that given the choice, I would probably steer away from creating a book that’s so devoted to realism. The times I’ve tried to root my fiction in a non-magical universe, I’ve at least had a world from the past to fill in for other kinds of strangeness.
With Obreht’s novel, I craved a stranger story than the one I got. All my favorite stories have some unnatural or supernatural element to them. Someone recently asked me my opinion on Shakespeare’s history plays; I don’t particularly have an opinion on them, though give me Macbeth or The Tempest or King Lear and I am off to the races. There is something about the literalizing of the imagination that engages me without qualifications (see Esther by genre for more on that). This isn’t to say there’s nothing worthy in a “literary” work; I’ve just realized more and more that other things speak more closely to my heart.
In the end, all that matters about the year Téa Obreht was born is that’s where her arc as someone who shares words—her words, her particular take on the world—begins. This book spoke to me, and I’m glad I found it. Storytelling is a gift economy at heart. I’ve learned a lot from reading The Tiger’s Wife, and I hope that will work its way into Innogen and the Hungry Half sooner rather than later.
And if I write that deeply rooted story about where I come from, somewhere down the line, it will be stronger for hearing other voices. It will be mine. And it will have unreal things in it.