Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Confusing, and Maybe It's Just Me


I said I wasn't going to do any more reviews, and I'm not. However, I still feel like saying something about this one, so I'm going to. If the spirit moves me, maybe I'll say something about some others, too. We'll see. No promises.

I found this novel puzzling. It's very well written, in a sometimes self-consciously poetic way. Obreht can surely paint a scene. At various times I could feel the hot breath of the tiger, sense the creepiness of a man's figure dimly perceived in the shadows, and smell the scents of a fresh field and the forest beyond.

But the threads of the plot are interwoven, moving back and forth in time, and the politics involved were a mystery to me the entire time. Somewhere in the Balkans, there is ethnic war coming, and happening, and in the past, while the narrator tries to do her job as a doctor and make sense of her grandfather's death under unusual circumstances.

Leftover minefields have to be crossed, buildings and bridges are bombed, and everyone in the country - from small town citizens to the animals in the metropolitan zoo - suffers, and some of them die.  All this is the historical backdrop for a personalized story I never really understood. At the end I was left thinking, "What just happened?" The fact that there is some magical realism going on doesn't help clarify things, either (although I liked those parts a lot).

I also have to say I was disappointed that The Jungle Book, which is a pivotal plot point, didn't seem to have any important thematic parallels to the story. There were a few references to Shere Khan (who is terrifying arrogant and cowardly in the authentic, non-Disney version, just in case you don't know that) and some of the other Kipling characters, and the Big Hunter with the Big Gun is a buffoon in both stories, and there are some strong superstitions wafting about in both villages, but other than that, practically any book could have served as the focal point.

I'm left thinking that I'm too deficient in background to figure it out on my own. I'm perfectly willing to say that's my own darn fault.

My conclusion is that this is a pleasant read and well-written, but you might be wise to read a few reviews before you read the book itself. I'm off to read them now and see if they enlighten me. If not, well, it was still worth reading, and not only because it means I can cross another Orange Prize winner off my TBR list.

Excerpt:

Sitting at the hearth in Mother Vera's house, my grandfather drew the shape of the tiger in the ashes, and thought about seeing and knowing--about how everyone knew, without having seen, that Luka was dead, and that the tiger was a devil, and that the girl was carrying the tiger's baby. He wondered why it didn't occur to anyone to know other things--to know, as he knew, that the tiger meant them no harm, and that what went on in that house had nothing to do with Luka, or the village, or the baby: nightfall, hours of silence, and then, quiet as a river, the tiger coming down from the hills, dragging with him that sour, heavy smell, snow dewing on his ears and back. And then, for hours by the fireside, comfort and warmth--the girl leaning against his side and combing the burrs and tree sap out of the tiger's fur while the big cat lay, broad-backed and rumbling, red tongue peeling the cold out of his paws.        



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