I never know about award winning novels: on the one hand, the awards occasionally introduce me to amazing novels I wouldn't have noticed otherwise but sometimes their opinions and mine just don't mesh. That is somewhat the case when it comes to The Tiger's Wife. Tea Obreht is originally from Serbia, one of the countries that was once part of Yugoslavia, before war and bloodshed. Her novel deals with war, conflict, ethnic differences, and tells the story of coming of age in an unnamed war torn city. And while I feel like I should care about this, I had a hard time actually feeling that way. I felt too distant from the narrator, Natalia, to truly care what was going on with her specifically. At the beginning of the novel, she is enroute to give vaccines to children in an orphanage when she finds out that her grandfather has died in a random village, confusing his family. Though accompanied by her best friend, she keeps the information to herself and seems rather numb. For the rest of the novel, she reflects on her childhood, growing up with her mom and grandparents, the war, and the stories her grandfather used to tell as well as the stories of her grandfather she learned later in life.
Natalia remembers visiting the tigers at the zoo with her grandfather until the zoo was closed down by the war, though she never quite understood his interest in them. While I was never completely drawn into the modern day part of the story with only a few exceptions, I quite enjoyed the vignettes and two stories that played such an important role in Natalia's grandfather's life. One of these is the deathless man, whom the grandfather comes across at various times throughout his life, a man who cannot die and also ends up playing a small supporting role in the tiger's wife story, though it isn't clear if the grandfather knew this. The tale of the tiger's wife was a beautifully written fairy tale like story set during the World War II, and is about her grandfather's village and a tiger that escaped from the city's zoo during bombing, making its way north. It is sad, tragic and poignantly written. The characters are written with redeeming qualities or enough of a backstory to give them some depth, even the ones that end up playing villainous roles.
If the novel had stayed in the past, I would have easily said that this was a good novel and recommended it (though I wonder if part of that was simple manipulation - of course, I'm going to feel lots of emotions about an abandoned tiger; I think most people would agree with me that an animal's struggle in a book or movie is almost always more moving than a person's). Unfortunately, I didn't like the parts set in the modern day or even the previous decade of warfare. It just felt like it could have been so much more but I was apathetic to the main character and her family. Every once in a while there is an interesting glimpse into their daily lives, but mostly she portrays herself as a dissatisfied teen that grew up to become a doctor like her grandfather. Additionally, while I enjoyed the stories, the overall narrative is a bit disjointed as a result. Natalia uses these stories to explain and understand her grandfather but I would have preferred him as the narrator in that case. In fact, I think that would have been a better novel - the grandfather's perspective of his life and the war. Basically, I don't quite understand all the attention this novel received - I was emotionally invested for half the novel which may be enough for a lukewarm recommendation but not for an award winning novel. Natalia was too disconnected from her surroundings and as a result, I was disconnected from her.