I only picked this up because I popped into the library to kill time before my hairdresser’s appointment a couple of weeks ago. I remembered hearing that it had been nominated for or won some award or another and it looked interesting. Since starting to read it, I looked at some reviews online and was surprised that it had not been received altogether favourably.
There is a plot of sorts, but most of the novel is made up of stories told to the narrator, Natalia, by her now deceased grandfather. Set in an unnamed part of the former Yugoslavia, a few years after the bitter and brutal wars which ripped that region apart, Natalia is a doctor tasked with delivering vaccines to children in an orphanage across the border in what is now a ‘rival’ country. En route, she discovers that her grandfather has died and his personal things have not been returned to her grandmother. She is near to the place where his body was found, although no one knows why he was there, so goes to pick them up. Natalia gives us information about her own childhood and teenage years she spent with her grandfather, and tells us the stories he has told her, namely that of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man, with other tales about the people involved in these.
Other reviewers have said they were frustrated by the lack of plot, but I enjoyed the basic premise and the frequent digressions into folk lore and people’s histories. The stories themselves are tinged with magic realism although Natalia narrates them knowingly, acknowledging their implausibility and often providing us with more credible explanations. Some reviewers felt the book lacked emotion which I think is unfair, Natalia’s admiration for her grandfather is clearly evident and I was moved by the stories of the tiger’s wife, her brutal butcher husband and the other people you meet along the way.
I found this reminiscent of Louis de Bernieres, particularly Birds Without Wings which is one of my all time favourite books. The ‘further reading’ section at the back also recommends Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, neither of whom I have ever read but are certainly there on my ‘list’.