by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 13, 2012
3The Stranger’s Child
2The Tiger’s Wife
Bethanne Kelly Patrick
Two titles, two apostrophes.
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht have almost nothing in common except those titular apostrophes. The middle-aged Hollinghurst is a polished Englishman with an acclaimed body of work that includes his 2008 The Line of Beauty and 1988 The Swimming-Pool Library, novels already granted a certain level of staying power. Not only is Obreht a mere 26 (and she wrote The Tiger’s Wife at 24) and not only is this her debut novel—she’s not even writing in her first language.
However, the moment I read my first email from The Tournament of Books, I knew why these two books had been assigned together. Yes, viva la différence and all that, but more important: These are both significant novels written by authors of consequence. One hopes, of course, that that applies to many, if not most, of the ToB list. However, the one thing that critics and readers seem to agree on about Hollinghurst and Obreht is that their work is not just attention-worthy, but grapple-worthy. As different as these two novels are, neither is lazy. Both demand active reading.
We can start by parsing those possessive apostrophes in the titles.
The Stranger’s Child means “the child of the stranger,” not “the child of a stranger.” The first clue that it won’t be easy to figure out who “the stranger” is comes from the smudged visage of the oh-so-properly attired gent in boater and striped blazer on the cover. We can quickly surmise that this figure is Cecil Valance, heir to a great estate, practitioner of “Oxford style” frottage, and poet. Is Cecil gay, straight, or bi? A delight or a horror? A figure of literary import or a lackluster fraud? Is he the stranger—or the child? Or both?
These questions aren’t rhetorical, at least to the world of Hollinghurst’s novel, which is sliced into five sections, each taking place in a distinct era of modern English history and involving members of two families (the Valances, and the less illustrious relatives of Cecil’s Cambridge pal and sometime partner in sodomy, George Sawle), as well as an assortment of hangers-on who attempt in their own ways to penetrate the luster of Corley Court and its dead hero. Early-ish in the book, Cecil is killed in World War I, and his redoubtable mother (cast from the same mold as Lady Violet in Downton Abbey) places him in marble effigy in the great house’s chapel.
Eventually, George’s sister, Daphne, will supplant the dowager Lady Valance at Corley, then relinquish her place—but not without engendering a family whose tendrils still dip gently back toward Corley Court decades after the place has become a boys’ preparatory school. When an academic in search of lost Cecilana begins an affair with one of the schoolmasters in the third slice of the narrative, we are of course reminded of Cecil and George’s secret affair. And so on: At times, The Stranger’s Child feels like a literary kaleidescope, in which some patterns stay the same while others rearrange, startlingly, and then come into a new focus with the next turn. The way children are treated, societal views on divorce, even the amount of alcohol elderly women can drink—everything changes, and not always in a clear way. As George visits Cecil’s tomb years later, he notices the chapel’s “thwarted light through the stained-glass window giving the place, by afternoon, the atmosphere of the time just after sunset. Pale things glowed weakly, but others, tiles and tapestries, were dull until the eyes adjusted.” Hollinghurst reminds readers that everything that glows, however weakly, is not necessarily most significant. Sometimes the things in shadows—like the tomb’s “white figure” of Cecil—have stories to tell.
Which leads me back to that pesky apostrophe. We know it’s “the stranger,” but is it “the child of the stranger,” or “a child of the stranger?” (When I posed this grammatical conundrum on Twitter, people asked if I were getting enough sleep.) Bear with me: In Hollinghurst’s history, there are many children. Cecil Valance is one, since his slippery self defies any character’s categorization, but so is the archetypal homosexual man in modern England, and even modern England itself can be considered a stranger’s child.
That phrase, as many readers of this essay will already know, derives from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” a celebration of male friendship. The stanza in which it appears reads:
Till from the garden and the wild
A fresh association blow,
And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger’s child.
It connotes change not in character but in culture. If nothing else linked these two novels, the idea that individuals can and do remain true to their own versions of themselves does. The narrator of The Tiger’s Wife, a doctor in war-torn modern Yugoslavia, mainly demonstrates this through stories of her physician grandfather, whose death at the beginning grounds a novel that often veers into wacky proto-mythology.
I mention that wackiness because it, like Hollinghurst’s overly mannered language (most ambitiously catalogued by James Wood in his New Yorker review), is not just a glaring flaw, but one that almost undoes the rest of the author’s good work. There’s not only a real tiger, a symbolic tiger, and a personification of death named Gavran Gaile, there’s even a hideously abused but determined woman (the wife of the title—or a wife?).
The Tiger’s Wife is, at its foundation, a love story between a grandparent and a grandchild. Natalia Stefanovi is on a quest to find out about her grandfather’s final moments, and this journey (undertaken in a country that remains nameless, but is a dead ringer for the author’s native former Yugoslavia) sparks memories of the many stories he’s shared with her over the years, stories that mesh truth and myth, memory and fact, geography and history and much more. The grandfather’s obsession with tigers is traced back to the famous World War II bombing of the Belgrade Zoo and his imaginary village’s imaginary history with a tiger that survived on its outskirts.
Narrator Natalia lives in a world as rigidly delineated by its new borders and ancient enmities as the one of Cecil Valance’s relatives, and as she and her colleague Zóra attempt to deliver vaccines to a remote orphanage, they, too, wait for “a fresh association” to blow through their land. The Tiger’s Wife attempts to connect the past to the present, as The Stranger’s Child does, but instead of a stately chronological progression a la Hollinghurst, Obreht relies on the ties between characters and events to trigger her time travel. The non-linearity of “Child” makes intellectual sense, while the memory-driven chaos of “Wife” makes emotional sense.
The irony is that Natalia and her grandfather, in the midst of searing hardships, continue to conduct mentally challenging work, while the Valances and Sawles and Revels are shown in periods of relative ease, arguing about matters literary. Cecil’s wartime sacrifice is offstage, as is the bulk of World War II and the class struggles of Thatcher’s Britain. Hollinghurst has big issues at the heart of his latest book, but he handles them with detachment—yes, the careful and fascinated detachment of a first-class laboratory researcher, but I could almost smell his latex gloves and hear his focused breathing through each paragraph.
Obreht offers no such reserve. The gloves are off and her knuckles are bloody as she struggles to tell this story. It’s one she absolutely had to tell, and it is this authorial urgency that lifts The Tiger’s Wife out of its potential morass of disjointed stories into a novel that rewards engaged and yes, active, reading. If reading The Stranger’s Child can be compared to watching a television series like Downton Abbey, in that time and its inevitable erasures affect the portrait as a whole, then reading The Tiger’s Wife is closer to watching the steampunk-ish Boardwalk Empire, where the whole is more difficult to see, even with so much detail provided.
She showed us upstairs. Zóra and I would be sharing a room with two cots that had been made up with blue paisley quilts. There was a polished wooden dresser with a few broken drawers, and a small bathroom with an old-fashioned tub and a chain-pull toilet we were warned might or might not flush, depending on the time of day.... Our window looked out over the back of the property, the orange and lemon trees shivering behind it, and, above that, a plain at the foot of the mountain, lined with rows of low, wind-ruffled vines. Men were digging among the vines; we could hear the distant crunch of their shovels, the sound of their voices as they shouted to one another.
“Our vineyard,” Nada said. “Don’t mind them,” she said about the diggers, and closed one of the shutters.
The reader soon learns that the men digging are not looking for vine roots, but bones of massacred people. In Obreht’s novel, characters endure hunger, teeth are knocked back into a mouth, bones of children are exhumed—the mind boggles but doesn’t shut down, thanks in very large part to the hints of whimsicality Obreht provides. When nothing is certain, why should pain and brutality be so, either?
The best illustration of this comes in a scene that several critics remarked on, one that serves as a denouement for the twin journeys of Natalia and her grandfather. During the war, he makes a solitary trip to the sophisticated city of Sarobor (a made-up place, like most of Obreht’s others) on the eve of its being bombed to bits. It turns out that this is where he spent his honeymoon with his Muslim bride, and his memories of their fragile “time out of time” imbue his at-first solitary dinner at a once-grand hotel with sweetness and pathos.
However, another diner is in the restaurant, too—the Deathless Man, Gavran Gaile.
There’s a southerly breeze blowing down to me through the valley, and it brings in the singed smell of gunpowder. I can see the outline of the Old Bridge on the bank above the hotel, and a man is walking up it from the tower on the other side, lighting the lampposts the old-fashioned way, the way it’s been done since my time.... When I lean back, I notice the smell of cigarette smoke nearby, and I look around, and—to my surprise—there is another guest sitting at a table in the opposite corner, with his elbow up on the stone balcony rail. He is wearing a suit and tie, and he is reading, holding the book up so I cannot see his face.... He seems completely unaware of the way the bombing is lighting up the sky—like it’s a celebration, like fireworks are happening over the hill and the celebration is coming closer. Then I find myself thinking—maybe it is a celebration for him, maybe he has crossed the river tonight to gloat in the old Muslim palace. Maybe, for him, this is something funny, a night he will talk about years from now to his friends when they ask him about sending the Muslims downriver.
Who he’s there for might not be a spoiler, but it is certainly a pointed authorial comment on what actually dies. It’s not memories. It’s not the present, or the future—it’s the past. Not one of Obreht’s characters fights in desperation to go backwards in time or to pretend things haven’t changed—what Natalia, her grandfather, the bear man, and the tiger’s wife all want is to survive, and to help others survive, too.
Questions about who will live and who will die exist in The Stranger’s Child, as well, but they are on a different plane. Here is not the place to explain or debate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but here is certainly the place to say that when life-and-death questions meet an author’s immediate passion, that can make a book more compelling than another in which the questions are about cultural survival married to a more aloof authorial sensibility.
The Tiger’s Wife crackles with big questions and big talent. Obreht’s writing is nowhere near as elegant or polished as Hollinghurst’s, and her novel’s structure has some big flaws. But her willingness to plunge in is so irresistible that the active reading feels more like creative collaboration than viewing pictures at an exhibition.
I loved both books, and had read each of them before I was selected as a judge in this year’s Tournament. I’ve now read both twice straight through, and dipped into myriad sections of each again. I would highly recommend either novel to friends and other readers, and recommend both of them to most. Choosing between these books feels nearly impossible (O canny and cruel Tournament organizers!). However, let me tell a brief story, which is entirely true but without identifying details: When a clergyman of high rank had to decide, several years back, on whether or not to grant a “yea” vote in a church controversy, he was torn. His wife said to him “You must decide if you are going to vote with the past, or the future. This is controversial, but it is the future. And that is where you should be.”
Imperfect as it is, Téa Obreht’s powerful debut novel feels like the future. Thus, I grant my Tournament of Books “yea” to The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht.
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
Kevin: One thing you hardly ever have to do anymore is choose between two things that you love. When you and I were kids (or me anyway—you’re a couple of years younger), you could not watch both Welcome Back Kotter and CHiPs. You either lived in a Kotter home or a CHiPs home, and many playground hours were logged by Kotter kids telling the CHiPS kids what kinds of rubber hoses went up which particular noses, while the CHiPs kids in turn detailed the latest Muscle Beach insurance scam that had improbably, yet inevitably, ended in a 20-car freeway pileup.
In those primitive days of DVR-less paleo-televisions, our evenings were but a series of cruel Sophie’s choices.
The Tournament of Books artificially imposes these dilemmas on our judges. Judge Patrick enjoyed both of these novels. Ordinarily she would tell Book Riot readers to pick them both up and enjoy them. There would be no reason to choose one over the other. But, alas, she must choose. And now Alan Hollinghurst, who this morning should be basking in the amber glow of Judge Patrick’s unambiguous praise, instead chokes on the faintly copper-like taste of defeat.
Historically, historical fiction has probably been the genre most represented in the ToB. I think it was 2009 when almost half the books could probably be described as such. This year we have, what? The Stranger’s Child. There’s The Sisters Brothers, but that’s more punk/pulp Western than historical fiction. Salvage the Bones takes place in a specific period in the past, but a recent one. A Sense of an Ending doesn’t really qualify. The Marriage Plot takes place in the ’80s. This is really the only classic example in the field, and it’s making an early exit. I don’t know where it ranks in the Zombie poll, but I’m guessing it probably won’t be back.
John: By my count, historical fiction has won the tournament three of our first seven years (Wolf Hall, A Mercy, Cloud Atlas). Two of the years, we had all-historical fiction finals, with The Lacuna going down to Wolf Hall and Cloud Atlas nudging out The Plot Against America.
I think of myself as someone who generally doesn’t enjoy historical fiction, but some of my most pleasurable and surprising reading experiences in the tournament (The Book of Night Women, Let the Great World Spin) have been historical fiction. Still, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to The Stranger’s Child. Hollinghurst is one of those writers I should’ve read, but haven’t, and word on the street was that this effort wasn’t necessarily his best.
In the end, I quite enjoyed it. Not as much as Bethanne Patrick did, but quite a bit. The structure where the story leaps forward in time and it takes 20-30 pages to re-orient to whom is whom and what is what gave it a propulsion that the material might not otherwise earn. That said, I didn’t much care about the mystery or mysteries at the heart of the book, instead finding the pleasure in Hollinghurst’s sentences, the moment-to-moment rendering of these worlds. It’s not a book I’d press on people or rave over, but as Ms. Patrick says, Hollinghurst is a writer that has earned his staying power. This book probably won’t be my last of his.
Kevin: I enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife even more than Judge Patrick, I think. The book is terribly good company, to use a superlative that I think we once picked from Lorrie Moore’s pocket. I can see why it’s become such a book club standard. I’m also fascinated by authors—like Obreht and Aleksander Hemon—who can write entire novels so effortlessly in a second language while I consistently have trouble ordering a Croque Monsieur.
John: The Tiger’s Wife is one of the books on our tournament list that I didn’t read. More accurately, it’s one I didn’t listen to. I had a free download from Audible.com and after reading some negative reviews of the child narrator of the audiobook of Swamplandia, decided that The Tiger’s Wife would be a good bet.
Well, it didn’t work out. I must’ve listened to the first 10 minutes five different times. People say they love audiobooks because they can do other things like laundry or re-grouting the tub. In my first attempt, I was ironing and after 10 minutes I realized I hadn’t taken in a single word of the book.
My next try was while driving, the sort of activity that audiobooks are designed for. Same effect. Trying to latch on to the story was like trying to climb up a greased pole.
After that, I went the opposite way, and tried maximum distraction by listening while in the “cardio heart rate” zone on the elliptical trainer. For me, the “cardio heart rate” zone could also be called the “gasping and seeing spots” zone. I figured that maybe my body shutting down non-essential functions would allow me to focus on the book.
My final attempt I was flat on my back on the couch, staring at the blank ceiling, earphones in, free of distraction.
I fell asleep.
This is, as they say, a “me” problem. It’s sad to admit, but I often have the same issues at live readings, where I’ll find myself obviously lost and have to take my cues for appropriate responses from the rest of the audience. The only audiobooks I’ve had luck with in the past are of the Sedaris or David Rakoff variety, essentially essays with jokes, routines that have a rhythm that I can get comfortable with and lock on to.
I’d be curious to hear from others about their experiences with audiobooks, if anyone else has my affliction. Or the opposite: if they most enjoy a book when it’s read to them by someone else.
Kevin: When my first book came out in 2005 people still mostly listened to audiobooks on CD. The version of Cast of Shadows that was widely available was radically abridged—maybe 2/3 of the book had been cut. There was an unabridged version, but it was on something like 17 discs, cost north of $100, and was purchased mostly by libraries and trophy wives.
And yet I was at a book signing once and I saw a woman in line holding the unabridged audiobook. And inside my head, my id was whispering to my ego, “Look at that! This lady must LOVE us! She’s just blew a whole C-note on our book!” She made it to the front of the line, handed the box to me and said, “I listen to everything Scott Brick reads.”
So I’ll suggest narrators might have a little something to do with it.
This sets up another interesting showdown in the second round, where the widely admired 1Q84 will meet the almost universally liked Tiger’s Wife. It’s like Terrence Malick in an Iron Silo-falls count anywhere-Punjabi Prison match against Reese Witherspoon.
And before we let Judge Patrick go, I want to thank her always-excellent Book Riot for sending me to the UCB’s Pictionary: The Cormac McCarthy Edition last week.
It’s on the shelf next to Jodi Picoult’s Sorry! (That Your Baby Needs a Transplant).