I hate doing this, but I have realized it is time for me and this book to part ways. It was a rocky relationship from the beginning. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht started out with a prelude chapter of the main character describing her earliest memory from when she was four years old. In four pages of rich detail, the main character describes how they get to the zoo, everything that everyone was wearing, what they say, and what they packed for lunch the day that she went to the zoo and saw an accident where a tiger mauled a zoo employee.
That was the first time I put the book down. Nobody remembers their ‘earliest memories’ that clearly. I can understand that seeing a tiger attack would be memorable, but the amount of information that would get stored from that day that is clear enough to remember decades later would be a few brief moments surrounding that vividly gruesome event.
There are a few reasons for this psychologically. One is called “weapon focus” and is something that affects the accuracy of all eyewitness testimony: If there is a weapon involved in a scene, people get hyperfocused on the weapon itself and it becomes much more difficult for them to remember any other details about the scene clearly. They are focusing on the gun and whether or not it is pointed at them, and they aren’t as likely to notice little details like what the perpetrator looks like. In this case, the weapon is the tiger’s mouth and claws. She recalled lots of details about the attack itself and that is realistic, but chances are she would be so focused on what was happening with the tiger that she wouldn’t have noticed which other people in the crowd had turned away from the scene and which had watched. Even if these are things she sees in her peripheral vision at the time, it would not get stored in her memory because her attention would be on the tiger. That’s how memory works. It isn’t a video camera that records everything in finite detail: We tend to remember the important parts.
Second, and more importantly, people’s earliest memories are usually pretty brief moments in time, with not a lot of detail. I’ve done a lot of reading on the psychology of memory, but just in case I was misremembering, I asked several people what their earliest memory was: how old they were, and what happened. Most people had a hard time placing their exact age when the memory occurred and could relay the entire memory in 1-3 sentences.
One of my earliest memories was opening up a hardback book about dinosaurs while my sister was at swim lessons. I was sitting on the bleachers with my mom to my right and I could see the pool just above the top edge of the book. I remember being really excited about that book because I really loved dinosaurs, and being surprised at how the page was so white and had so many words on it.
It took three sentences to describe that memory. I don’t remember what my mom was wearing that day or what I was wearing that day. I don’t remember the car drive to get to the swim lessons, or the walk into the building, or anyone else being around. I don’t remember what I ate for lunch that day or what the weather was like. I don’t remember anything that was said to me before, during, or after opening the book. Early memories are short and tend to focus on something very important: What I remember was the moments where I first cracked open this amazing book and began to read.
I know from subsequent discussions with my mom that it was really hard to find dinosaur books back in the late 1970s, so they snapped up the book for me even though the reading level was much higher than any book that I’d read before. It was probably the first book I had ever tried to read that had more text on the page than pictures. The double-dose of amazement at dinosaurs and the number of words may be why it was so memorable for me.
Man, kids today have it so easy with all these cool dinosaur movies like Land Before Time, and books, and awesome TV shows like Dinosaur Train… I think if I was a kid growing up today and I loved dinosaurs, and someone gave me a dinosaur book, it wouldn’t be an event that got stored in my memory: I would probably have five other dinosaur books at home already, so it wouldn’t be such an important event that I would remember it years later.
None of my early memories, or the memories people shared with me during my survey contained the kind of vivid details that were presented as the “earliest memory” of the narrator of _The Tiger’s Bride_. Nor did any of those early memories cover such a long period of time as the memory presented in the Tiger’s Bride, which starts by putting on hats and raincoats before stepping out the door to her house, covers the trolley ride, the walk from the trolley, the lady at the ticket counter, the various animal cages, the people passing by…the tiger cage, what other people by the tiger cage are wearing, the tiger attack, the victim walking away bleeding, and the conversation that she and her grandfather have with the guy as he is bleeding… That’s a heck of a long time for a four-year-old to be having such a crystal clear memory.
Another third thing I recalled about how memory works involved a research study where they asked children to write about something they remembered doing, and also to write a lie about a memory that they were making up. When children were lying about an event, they put in a lot more vivid details than when it was true. They’ve found the same thing with adults: People tend to put in more details to prove to others that it happened when they know they are lying. Someone would only have such a vividly detailed memory when they are four years old if they are lying about it…
At that point I recalled that I was reading a work of fiction, and of course the author was lying about such an event occurring. I just wish the author had tried to recall something from her own memories of being four and used that knowledge to help her write more realistically about the main character would likely remember about an event that took place when she was four.
I discussed my concerns with the woman who recommended the book to me (also someone I surveyed regarding her earliest memory), and she thought that it might be a first novel where there was improvement in quality from the beginning to the end, but she had enjoyed the book. We discussed alternate ways the author could have presented the same information. If the chapter had been presented with just a place and a date in the past, and described the same events in the same level of detail from a third person perspective, rather than presenting it as her memory, I probably would have just kept reading and not had a problem with the scene.
I know the level of detail in the childhood memory is something I am probably oversensitive about as someone who has studied psychology. Its kind of like how my friend who does maintenance at a condominium complex yells at the screen when he sees action movies where someone shoots a gun at a locked door and the lock pops right open. He works with locks all the time, and says that if someone shot a doorknob, the lock would not only stay in place, but would become more difficult to unlock because of the twisted metal wedging the locking mechanism more firmly into place. I have another friend who used to work in the police who watches the “reality TV” cop shows when he wants a laugh. He knows police procedure well enough that he finds it funny to watch all the things on reality cop shows that violate those procedures. When we see things that totally contradict our experience, it messes with our suspension of disbelief and it is hard to stay into the story.
I felt like I had started off on the wrong foot with _The Tiger’s Bride_ triggering silly pet peeves that I hadn’t realized I had. I decided to give the book another chance, and started reading again. There were interesting allusions to this Tiger’s Bride that seemed to be a legend that we find out more about as the book goes on. This blending of myth and modern is something I find fascinating, and inspired this blog to begin with. This book should be right up my alley. I wanted to see why my friend enjoyed the book, and I had some hope I would see it as I kept reading.
The setting of the book is near the border between two countries after a war, and the author does a wonderful job creating the feeling of recovering after the devastation. At one point, the author is sitting down to dinner and the author knew that even though the plates were old and chipped, it was still valuable enough that it had to have been hidden during the war to keep it safe from looters. The author definitely establishes a time, place, and feel for the book through such details.
On the cover of the book is praise for the vivid descriptions, and it is true. There are lots of descriptions. Most of it is visual description of things the author sees as she is traveling or remembers on her past travels, and details about the trees she passes and the people she passes and their clothing. There are times where the book has multiple paragraphs devoted to visual description of the surroundings. It is richly detailed to the point where I start to tune out and then started skipping entire paragraphs of detail in hopes of getting back to the storyline. One thing I was taught early in my writing was not to have paragraphs that were entirely description, and that it is more interesting for readers if descriptions are integrated into the action of the story: I would rather read about how the old oak door creaks as the main character pushes it open than to read an entire paragraph about what the old door looks like. This would have been hard to do in _The Tiger’s Bride_ because the main character does very little interaction with her environment and the people in it, despite all her keen observations about it. Even conversations between characters seem rare. The author is so busy remembering and describing in great detail that not much happens in the present tense in the story.
At this point, I am 99 pages into the book, and I can summarize what has happened without feeling like I’m giving any spoilers here: A woman and her friend are driving to deliver medical supplies across the border. She gets a phone call that her grandfather died, talks a little with her friend as continues driving. They pass through the border check and arrives at a home that will host them during their stay. She eats dinner and talks with her hosts, goes to bed, and is woken up by the coughing of people working in the fields. She goes out to check on them.
Our first glimpse of this legendary Tiger was disappointing. Most legends about people have them doing extraordinary things, whether they are heroic or tragic or foolish. Myths and legends that focus on animals often have lessons, or were created to try to explain why things are the way they are, like how the coyote got his yellow eyes. Most of these animal-focused myths have lots of dialogue between different animals, and are often sparse when it comes to detail.
I didn’t find any of those elements in the story of the Tiger. It escapes from a zoo after the zoo gets abandoned by humans. It is hungry and thirsty and injured and it walks. Sometimes it finds water or carrion and then walks again. It walks until it leaves the city of men and enters natural areas. It walks across several kinds of terrain. It eventually gets hungry enough that it chases down prey and feels natural instincts that it had never known in the zoo.
There are loads of detail about this Tiger’s journey and what it feels on the way, but nothing that hints at why this becomes a story that people would refer to during the novel. I get the parallel with the main storyline, though: Just like the narrator of the story, we get rich description of a journey without much of anything happening.
Maybe the legend of the Tiger doesn’t get interesting until he presumably takes this Bride people keep talking about. I tried to keep reading.
There are many instances where the author describes travels that she made repeatedly, like walking with her grandfather on specific routes on specific days and seeing specific things every time. It is an interesting contrast to have these reminders of the things that stay the same even when war creates changes in other areas of life. My issue again is with too much detail interfering in the feeling the author is trying to create.
I reached a section where the narrator is describing what we would see if we drove to her grandfather’s town. It describes in detail about when we would have to get up in the morning, and the sights we would pass along the way, and where we would turn, and the conversations I would have at the petrol station.
She says that if I drove to her grandfather’s house, I would see “old men cross the street in front of you on foot, behind flocks of newly shorn sheep, taking their time, stopping to wave the fat lambs over, or to take off their shoes and look for bits of gravel that have been bothering them for hours.” Maybe it never rains or gets cold there. Most people tend to quicken their pace to get back to warm, dry places when the weather gets ugly, but maybe these old men really are determined to take life at such a leisurely pace that they would stand in the middle of the road picking gravel out of their shoes even in terrible weather. Also, these sheep are all newly shorn any time I would make the trip out to her grandfather’s house. Maybe all the old men who herd sheep in this area have obsessive-compulsive disorder and shear their sheep so frequently that we would have a greater chance of seeing them newly shorn than we would of seeing them a little shaggy. There isn’t much point to shearing them if they haven’t grown enough wool yet to make it worth the effort, though. Most ranchers only shear their sheep once or twice a year.
I understand that there are some places in the world that time doesn’t seem to touch. I have made many trips to grandparents that lived in rural areas. There are some things that never changed in decades of driving the same path, like the bridge with the large sign that said “Condemned.” As kids, we would hold our breath as if that would somehow make it easier for our van to pass over the bridge without it crumbling beneath us, but the same bridge was there year after year without anyone fixing or replacing it.
Places and things may stay the same when traveling to remote villages, but people and animals still change even in small towns. The only person I know I will see every time I make the drive out to my grandma’s house is actually a wooden cutout made to look like you are seeing a woman’s behind as she is bent over working in the field. A few years ago, she acquired a wooden husband bent over showing the back of his jeans as he worked beside her. Other than that, I have no guarantee of passing people at all. There have been times when we had to stop for cattle crossing over the road, or slow down for a tractor that was driving on the roads, but those things were rare.
The final straw for me was the realization that we were not actually driving to her grandfather’s town at that point in the story. It had, in fact, been several pages since main character did anything in the present tense of the storyline. She was just taking the time to tell me what I would see if I did decide to drive to the town her grandfather had lived in, and what I would see along the way, and what time of the morning I would have to get up in order to make the drive. At this point, though, there doesn’t seem like much reason to go there when we know her grandfather is dead and that she won’t be going to the funeral because she is delivering medical supplies, so why do I need to know how people would react as I drive by them on this journey that neither I or the narrator are actually taking?
I put the book down again. I did some deep breathing and put the book away for a couple of weeks, figuring maybe if I let it sit long enough I could pick it up and read it til I get to the good part. There has to be a good part if my friend recommended it to me, after all, and I was still curious about the story of the Tiger’s Bride, despite the story of the Tiger.
I have a rule about only reading one fiction book at a time, though, so I have not started another book. Across the last several weeks, I have read books on financial planning, real estate investment, and a book on how to write Individual Support Plans for people with developmental disabilities. None of these were particularly interesting topics for me, but I got through them, so surely I should be able to make it through _The Tiger’s Bride_. Every time I started to pick the book back up, though, I remembered that I would be returning to this long description of a journey that the main character was not even going on, and I would set the book back down again.
It is hard for me to admit defeat when reading fiction books. There are books I have put aside because things got busy at work, or I misplaced, or whatnot, but there are very few books where I have made the conscious decision that it just wasn’t worth the time and effort to continue reading. _The Tiger’s Bride_ will be the third book I have given up on. The friend who recommended the book to me said something wise that made me feel better about giving up on this book.
She said “The way I see it, there are so many good books out there that I will never have enough time to read them all, so I don’t need to waste time reading books I am not enjoying.” That does make me feel better about giving up on books.
I don’t feel like I can give this book a rating when I didn’t finish it. I get the impression that it is actually a good book, but that the author’s writing style just didn’t mesh well with the things I prefer to read.
Heck, I might even enjoy it under different circumstances. I recall one time where I was sick for weeks, and I spent most of the time on the couch drifting in and out of sleep and watching an anime that I was enjoying. When I started feeling better and had enough attention span and consciousness to actually watch an entire episode, I realized that I didn’t like the show after all. Nothing seemed to actually happen in that episode, or any of the others I had watched. There didn’t seem to be any storyline, character development, or any building towards some climax. My anime pusher told me that the show was geared towards older Japanese women having bittersweet remembrances of childhood. I think that they would like this book too.
If you have the patience and dedication to enjoy reading books like the original Bram Stoker’s _Dracula_ complete with its lists of train schedules and breakfast menus, you may make it farther along in _The Tiger’s Bride_ than I did. If you like a slow storyline with plenty of meandering down richly detailed memory lane, than you just might love this book.
I’d love to hear your thoughts too. Have you read _The Tiger’s Bride_ and want to share your opinion? What books have you given up on, and why?