A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife

with 16 comments

I really wanted to like this book. When I heard that its 25-year-old author had scooped the Orange Prize, I found my inevitable flash of envy quickly extinguished by a tsunami of admiration for a brave decision on the part of the jury and hope that here at last was an indication that the great and the good of the literary world might be budging up to make room for some new talent. Please be good, please be good, I willed the coiling circle as I watched  it spiral the text down out of the ether on to my Kindle. Please let me enjoy it!

I got part of my wish: The Tiger’s Wife was good. It was very well done. But did I enjoy it? Did I, hell.

The reason for this boils down to two words: ‘magical realism’ (or ‘fabulism’, if you prefer). Call it what you will, I can’t stand the stuff. In fact, it’s been the thorn in the side of my reading career ever since I fumbled Nights at the Circus down off the bookshop shelf aged 12 or thereabouts. Give me any book that trades off blending elements of the enchanted with the ‘real’ world and it’s as though some sort of reverse magic is in play as far as I’m concerned, transforming books that are hailed as masterpieces into dull exercises in creating something out of very little before my very eyes.

At the touch of my bewitched fingers, the greatest works in the fabulist canon wither into tedium. Midnight’s Children? Abracadabra: four hundred and fifty pages about a man with a blocked nose.  One hundred years of solitude? Loved the image of the galleon encrusted with orchids, but — Kaboom! — as far as the rest went, about six months of solitude would have covered it for me (the same doesn’t go for Marquez’s extraordinary autobiography, Living to tell the tale, by the way, which I will love until I die).

What makes it worse is that it’s not even as though I can have the satisfaction of thinking that the writing is bad. I can see that it isn’t. I can recognise Marquez’s masterful lyricism, Carter’s eye for the fantastic and Winterson’s way with the grotesque. In the case of The Tiger’s Wife, which (just in case you thought this post might give you some idea of what the book is actually about) follows a young female doctor as she pieces together the strange myths surrounding her grandfather’s life and death in some unspecified Slavic country, I can admire the neat plotting and the way the threads cross and complement each other. I can even — and here’s the real curveball — salute the way Obreht strikes up suspense and tension, reeling the reader on, without feeling the slightest desire to turn the page.

I know there are plenty of people who would disagree with me though. And I’m game to be converted, so if you know of some magical realist gems that might break the spell (preferably stories by girls if you want me to look at them before 2012), I’d be delighted to hear about them.

As far as The Tiger’s Wife goes, though, if you like magical realism, go knock yourself out with it. If you don’t, I doubt Obreht will change your mind.

Picture by WGyuri

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Written by londonchoirgirl

July 6, 2011 at 9:23 am

16 Responses

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  1. Hi Ann! Long time no see. Funnily enough some magical realist works count among my favourites! (I love Marquez’s Cholera which is not very magical, but I’ve never read Solitude) The Master and Margarita is brilliantly weird, though I guess you might have read that already, and I love almost all of Haruki Murakami’s stuff – I think Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Wild Sheep Chase and Kafka on the Shore are particularly good. But unfortunately none of these are written by women….

    Evelyn

    July 8, 2011 at 1:23 am

    • Hi Evelyn. Great to hear from you! I haven’t read The Master and Margarita, so perhaps I should give it a go. I’ve also heard good things about Murakami and never read him, so will put him on my list for 2012. Looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks…

      londonchoirgirl

      July 8, 2011 at 9:07 am

  2. There’s Laura Esquivel’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’, which only gets magical towards the end, and is quite a bittersweet story. How do you stand on actual fantasy, then, or alternative reality?

    Ela

    July 8, 2011 at 10:37 am

    • Thanks for this – I’ll give it a try. Have to confess I haven’t read much fantasy (not since the childhood classics anyway) or alternative reality. I reckon I’d get on with it better than magical realism as it seems to operate within its own rules a bit more, if that makes sense. It’s the randomness of MR that gets me sometimes. Any recommendations for good fantasy/ alternative reality much appreciated.

      londonchoirgirl

      July 8, 2011 at 11:00 am

  3. I do enjoy magic realism when it’s done subtly, and I’ve heard enough good things about this book that I’d be willing to give it a try. Sorry you weren’t blown away by it.

    BermudaOnion

    July 12, 2011 at 11:33 am

  4. I’ll be giving this one a wide berth! A month of my life attempting to complete 100 Years of Solitude is enough time spent learning that magical realism and I don’t mix. (Though I do like what I’ve read of Winterson …)

    louche

    July 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm

  5. I would suggest steering FAR clear of Murakami, who might be the most insufferably pedantic novelist in the world today. I’ve only read Kafka on the Shore, but what a train wreck that novel proved to be (and I love magical realism). I recommend two Aussie titles: Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (the best thing I’ve read in at least five years) and Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (which I’ve read three times and have taught and will one day teach again). And then, too, an American: Tom Drury’s magnificent, eerie The Driftless Area (he might be the best writer of contemporary dialogue around).

    Jason Cooper

    August 2, 2011 at 4:23 am

    • Thanks Jason – these are going on my 2012 list!

      londonchoirgirl

      August 2, 2011 at 10:14 am

      • To further convince you that Murakami is not all he’s cracked up to be: my best friend once wrote that if Murakami ever wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, he — that is, Ben — will fly to Stockholm and streak the ceremony.

        And do you plan to continue your blog, in an altered form, of course, that I might be privy to your love of Cloudstreet when you read it in 2012? (I hate to sound presumptuous, but I can’t imagine anyone disliking it, just as I can’t imagine any two people liking it for the same reasons.)

        Jason Cooper

        August 5, 2011 at 5:05 am

      • Wow. Two bold claims in a single comment. Almost makes me wish Murakami does win so that we can all see your friend live out his pledge! And of course I can’t refuse your gauntlet of taking on Cloudstreet now.

        Haven’t thought as far as next year yet (I still write 1997 by accident sometimes) but this blogging lark is pretty addictive. It would need to have some sort of angle, though, not just ‘writing about books’ and not ‘a year of reading men’ – that’s mostly what I’ve been doing my whole life, which is why I’m doing this. Let me know if you have any ideas…

        londonchoirgirl

        August 5, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      • Angles, angles. I don’t know, really. My wife read the entire history of the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction over a couple years and blogged her journey. I’m blogging my Booker Prize-winners, but it’s sporadic as I spend most of my time keeping up with my two book clubs (one of which is a Booker Prize-club in which we read the winners and some of the non-winning finalists). The longest-running of my two book clubs has an extra special angle planned for next year, which I’ll not divulge (I tend to treasure up secrets). But your approach will need to be such that Cloudstreet might be easily shoehorned in. Hmm. (Re: your current project, I highly recommend you read Tiina Nunnally’s translation of Sigrid Undset’s three Kristin Lavransdatter novels, as well as something of Jane Smiley’s — I’m reading her academic satire Moo right now and am loving it to pieces. But the Undset novels are a must — perhaps the greatest work of fiction, specifically in that translation, I’ve ever read and certainly the greatest reading experience I’ve ever had.) For next year…no two novels representing the same country? Around the world in 365 days? Winton’s novel, then, being the Australian entry…

        Jason Cooper

        August 6, 2011 at 6:14 am

      • Interesting. Thanks for the ideas. I will give it some thought.

        In the meantime, I will add Nunnally’s translation of Undset’s Lavransdatter novels (try saying that with a mouthful of marbles) and Smiley’s Moo to the list.

        londonchoirgirl

        August 6, 2011 at 9:02 am

  6. I struggled through The Tiger’s Wife. In reading the comments, I can say that I am a fan of Marquez’s Solitude and love Murakami — and I detested The Tiger’s Wife. Yes, it was lyrical, the writing exquisite. Yes, I believe the author will do great things in her writing career with much of her life ahead of her. I am such a reader, in fact, that I will read the shampoo bottles in a hotel to fall asleep if I am out of reading material. Clearly, I am not picky. I thought The Tiger’s Wife was a struggle because I never really cared about the narrator, and I couldn’t manage to see the various threads through the eyes of anyone else the writer introduced.

    The novel Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen contains elements of magical realism. The narrator becomes convinced his wife is a doppelganger and sets off for Argentina to find the “real” one, in the company of one of his psychiatric patients who thinks he receives coded messages that predict the weather from a group called The Royal Academy of Meteorology. It is clever with some fantastic writing. And, the author is female, fitting your quest on your blog.

    Andra Watkins

    August 2, 2011 at 1:56 pm

  7. You could try Isabel Allende’s ‘house of the spirits’, it has touches of magical realism, but they are not infuriating (in my opinion). I struggled with ‘one hundred years of solitude too’,

    Anna

    Anna Galkina (@AGalkina)

    August 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    • Thanks Anna – sounds interesting. Good sign that you had similar thoughts on the Marquez…

      londonchoirgirl

      August 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm


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