“He did not fear the hunter because he did not know how or why he should. He knew only that the smell that clung to this man was different–a cluttered smell, the smell of earth and heavy rot, of possessions over which death had been repeatedly smeared–and he found that it did not invite him.”
I’ve been in a slump.
I only finished three books in February because I would start a book and read the first fifty and then put it down somewhere; let it slide under the bed with the push of the vacuum cleaner, leave it on the fireplace step, lose it somewhere under my pillow, let it sit in the folds of my school backpack and let it die in my car between the seat belts, shoes, and receipts. I’ve probably read three books in the amount of unfinished books I’ve read. Nothing was hooking me to reading. My heart wasn’t in it, gasp. Even fearless readers lose meaning. I was reading fine writing, but that was all it was. Fine writing. Where’s the beauty? Where’s the way a writer twists words into new meaning? Turns out it’s in The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.
I bought this book ONLY, only because it was on the buy two, get one free shelf at Barnes and Noble. I found two books that I really wanted to read and this was one I had heard about from the Orange Prize. My aunt was there, I had nine books in my hands, stuffed under my chin like a bib and she took a few off my hands and made me narrow down. It’s like the way some girls shop for clothes. “You already have something like this, this has too many patterns, this is too short to wear to work.” With books it sounds a little more like this, “did you like the page you read sitting there hunched on the floor with your legs spread into a right triangle? Did you notice the people staring at you from behind the shelves, or were you instilled with words? Is the cover brilliant, did they take their time with it, did they give it paint?”
It was my third choice. It was just a bronze. It was a book that would sit on my shelf for months until I gave it a try. And then it was everything. I was rude to my coworkers at a meeting because I just wanted to read my book. Why are you talking to me. Why are you interrupting the myth. The deathless man had my full attention. He was beautiful in his own way, his coffee cup, gold-rimmed and shining. His coat pocket filled with grinds. His shuffled hair, his name filled with alliteration and hope. The deathless man became my literary hero until I met the tiger’s wife.
I think it says so much about an author when they can make a mute character have a voice on the page. I wanted to be the deaf mute tiger’s wife. I wanted to marry her dirty husband, Luka, listen to his gusla in the night air, sweet at first on the city balconies and bridges and then full of angry notes, dreams deferred. It does dry up like a raison in the sun. The snow of this story glistened like you could see yourself in it, made you sweat in the compacted ice. Trees were naked and full of secrets. The tiger’s wife may be bruised, one eye peeked open, still purple from her husband’s beatings, but she was beautiful. She was a child bride, a girl hidden in the attic like Jane Eyre, but the wife of something fierce, the wife of wilderness and fear. She made a whole town hate her. The power within her silence makes you want to take a vow. Obreht has made a woman from nothing. A woman whose father traded her off underneath a veil into one of the greatest characters in modern literature. I didn’t even need to hear her because I could feel her in the white space of the page. I could smell the tiger’s seeped fur, the wood burning of his stripes and the animal sweat of his back. It was delicious and terrifying the way Obreht wrote.
I’m shocked that people found this wasn’t one of the best reads of their year. Obreht manages to tell stories within a story within a story and you care about each small one. There’s a story in every sentence and you’re living it. I can truly believe in the deathless man, I will watch for men who carry tea in their pockets, untie small bags of herbs and dip the pouch into their cups, leaving stains on the sides of saucers for waiters everywhere. I will think about this book when I see a man lift a coffee mug to his lips. I will wonder if later someone will break the cup in fear. If you can’t be a character, live with one.
I love that even when you thought a story was almost over, another part of it came into place. When I thought the tiger’s wife had become the forest, we learn about the apothecary. How his disfigured face made him human to a mob of people so shut-in that they only opened to decay. This amazing juxtaposition between beauty and decay is everything in writing. The binaries of fiction, the great opposites of our world. How can you share one without having the other. How can beauty be a darling red petal, dotted with water from a spring rain without the small world of moss waxed to the bark of a tree.
I cried aloud when I found out who Galvin was, who his wife was, what woman ran barefoot to him across a stone bridge in the night. How she ran too far and not far enough. How you could not want to hold this book against you face and drag it down your cheeks makes no sense to me. And then the grandfather. I was just telling my students about my grandfather. How every time I know I’m doing something wrong and yet I still go through with it, I think of him. I think of him humming. I don’t even know if my grandfather hummed, but I imagine him humming with his hands in his pockets. I can see it in his eyes that he’s unhappy with me. I never met my grandfather, but he haunts me in the best way. I know he’s there, I know he carries me with him. I understand the need for a granddaughter to find the stories of her past. How can we know who we are if we haven’t lived the lives of everyone who came before us? All these different parts of ourselves that make a whole are just as important to our story as it was to their story. I hope my children want to know me, want to know where I’ve traveled in order to know themselves. I connected so much to the story of this girl who searched for her grandfather through riverbeds and burned restaurants. I wanted to know his story as much as I wanted to know hers. And instead of just one story, I got one hundred. I got everything I want in a book, beautiful writing, death, myths, secrets, spirits.
What more can you want from a book than to speak your truth to you? What can you want more than it to tell you who you are in the butterfly space between each of your ribs? Nothing.
“The ibis in the cage by the counter stood with one leg tucked under the blood-washed skirt of the feathers.”
If you find death and he speaks to you, be polite, hold out your chapped hands and your smell of Carolina pine, or your mother’s pearls, or the sweet pear of emptiness you carry with you, and go.