July in books.

Books Read: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht; The Lover’s Dictionary by David Leviathan; The Illumination of Merton Browne by JM Shaw.

Books Purchased: The Illumination of Merton Browne by JM Shaw. (Expect no such minimalism in future: this is only a great show of self-restraint, knowing that it is not long before I have to carry all these items back across the world…).

Both The Tiger’s Wife and The Lover’s Dictionary are underpinned by a sense that it is words, narratives, stories, that stop us from disappearing. Lives are to be memorialised as well as lived. Commemoration and remembering give us strength; tether us to our past; and make grief more sensical – whether it is the grief of the imperfections and impossibilities of a relationship, as in The Lover’s Dictionary; or the grief of death, war, and a nation torn apart, as in The Tiger’s Wife. We tell stories to make sense of these things, and to deal with them as best we can.

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In The Lover’s Dictionary, a narrator tells of their relationship, through a series of dictionary entries. The entries – starting with aberrant (‘”I don’t normally do this kind of thing, you said’) and ending with zenith – interweave and interlink, and do not follow a linear progression. Some entries will repeat parts of other entries; or pick up where others have left off. Some are synergetic: the entries of ephemeral and ethereal, for example, are to be read together; if one did not exist, it feels like the other would cease to be, also. Many other entires, of course, stand alone.

Each short entry reveals a little more of the puzzle of this relationship. It is complex (as these things often are) and there is a great deal of sadness in the story. It becomes clear that there has been infidelity, alcohol problems, and the burden of a sad childhood – but also, unquestionably, a great well of love between the protagonist and his partner. How could this relationship continue? But how could it end?

This is a brave book, and perfectly executed. It takes a great deal of courage to weave backwards and forwards through a story that is usually told from start to finish; and to only tell snippets of a story we usually hear in infinite detail. One of the highly impressive things about this novel was how it could do so much with so little. There are no spare words; the entries are tightly wrought and everything has its place. This is a short, easy read: some entries are only a sentence or two, and none are longer than a couple of pages. The 209-page book, then, might only take a few hours to devour. But I was often slowed by the magnitude of the words and ideas the author was conveying. I read this book with a pen in hand, underlining words, notions, sentences, and stopping to ponder them and catch my breath.

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Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife was one of the most eagerly awaited debut novels of recent years. Even before its publication, Obrecht had been named one of The New Yorker’s Top 20 Under 40 writers. On publication, The Tiger’s Wife  has gone on to win the 2011 Orange Prize, making Obrecht – at the age of 24 – the youngest person to ever win the prize.

At the center of the story is a grandfather and granddaughter. Within the first few pages of the novel, the grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances. The granddaughter, Natalia, is away from home; she must manage her first stages of grief and shock whilst – in her profession as a doctor – tending to an orphanage of children located in a country no longer part of her own. In order to find the answers of her grandfather’s death, Natalia starts a journey through the stories he had told her: the story of his childhood, when a large tiger came to the village; and the story of ‘the deathless man’. These narratives link in together tightly, in a blend of magic realism, fable, myth, and reality. They are beautifully rendered, and together they tell of generations of conflict, love stories, large animals, foreign cities and small villages. I loved how surreal stories of a man who could not die, and a woman who loved a tiger, were told with grace and love so that they felt utterly real.

Whilst it is clear that the war in question is that of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Obrecht cleverly ensures that no real places are easily identified. The descriptions of the places are strong, but generic, and the only place names mentioned are fabrications. This is a novel, not a piece of non-fiction. Obrecht can tell the personal stories of the war, without analysing the war itself (or its causes, its ramifications, who is to blame). Two ways in which the war is dealt with particularly struck me. First, the descriptions of Natalia trying to live a “normal” teenage life in the middle of a war’s abnormality are particularly touching. Secondly, towards the end of the novel an account is given of the grandfather and the deathless man having a “Last Supper” near what would, the next day, become a frontline of conflict. The twenty or so pages that outline the meal on the eve of the ‘Siege of Sarobar’ are haunting and beautiful.

Ultimately, the central theme of the book is how people deal with grief and death, in order to make sense of them (whether this is intimate death, like that of your grandfather; or the more large-scale death of people and nation caused by war). We deal with death through stories and ritual. We make sense of the nonsensical through myth, and through narrative. We tell ourselves stories to ease the pain, and in order to know what on earth to do next.

“Knit me a sweater out of your best stories”, reads the entry of yarn in The Lover’s Dictionary. If a sweater could be knitted out of these two books, it would be intricately patterned, strong, soft, and provocative.