Author: Tea Obreht
Finished on: 2 January 2017
Where did I get this book: A present from my in-laws several years ago
Mount TBR Challenge: 1
#RockMyTBR January: 1
My favourite bit in The Tiger Who Came To Tea was never the appearance of the tiger itself. The excitement of having a gigantic hungry big cat knock on your front door, and then eat everything in the house (as well the bit that my dad used to say turned it into a horror story: ‘he drank all daddy’s beer’) was nothing compared to the excitement of going outside after dark for supper. To a cafe. In your nightie. And your wellies. That was always where the real wonder of the ubiquitous children’s story lay for me.
And such it is with this book. Obreht has written a fantastic, in both senses of the word, story. Or rather series of stories, as this is an episodic book that tells a number of life histories of the various characters that our protagonist, Natalia, encounters as she looks back on the life of her recently deceased grandfather. A life not short of drama and bloodshed that spanned the World War Two bombing of Belgrade, and also the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The book includes more than a sprinkling of fabulism: a tiger that escapes from the zoo during the bombing raid, and takes a long journey to make its home with the abused wife of a butcher in a small village; the ‘deathless man’ who can predict which of the people he meets will imminently be entering the grave themselves by looking at their coffee grounds, but who for himself just wants a glass of water and an old copy of The Jungle Book. It’s all good stuff.
But the real magic at the heart of Obreht’s story lies in the more mundane. A successful, driven young woman reflecting on the formative role her grandfather played in shaping who she is, and the realisation of quite how much they meant to each other.
Obreht has a wonderful way of blurring the edges between reality and fantasy; an irresistibly matter-of-fact style when introducing the more fanciful elements of her plot. It creeps up on you quite what a bold story you are reading. But despite the rich seam of mythology running through this book, it is in the meaning of relationships between people where it really shines: in particular Natalia and her grandfather, but I also love the strength of the friendship between Natalia and her companion Zora. It is all the better for never really being explained; a solid and honest bond that they have had since early childhood which lends a stabilising influence to the story.
That is the strength of this book. The unspoken but beautiful love between people, and the way our shared histories shape our lives, is Obreht’s sausages and ice cream in your nightie and wellies when all the street lamps were lit.