In every review you will see of The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht you will be told that she was the youngest of The New Yorker's twenty best writers under forty list from last year. OK. Nice, but as lists go, who cares? I guess I could care because if I like writer under forty then presumably they will produce more novels for me to read than the best writer under eighty but over seventy. If. If it turns out that writer has than one story to tell, won't suffer from writer's block or make the list that guides me The Best Writers Who Work On Tuesdays In Months With R's In The Name And Are Without Nut Allergies.
So? Did the toddler come through? Oh yes she did. As she and the other kids would say, "She brought it."
Téa Obreht has written an intense, coming of age novel about loss, mourning, life and the storytelling that inhabits a history. The Tiger's Wife is set in an unnamed Balkan country. This is a country whose past for the last century or so was been a constant struggle for independence, stability and equality. Wars dovetail the books plotline. World War Two and a civil war that strongly resembles the Serbian Croatian War. The civil war is recent enough for what side you were on to be a constant judgement in the book.
Natalia Stefanovi is a young physician born and raised in this difficult country. She feels lucky that the war has left her untouched. She uses her profession to try and make amends for that by tending to the causualties and orphans of the war. When the novel starts she is on her way with help for a village that had formerly been within the borders of her own country. When she arrives Natalia discovers that her beloved Grandfather, also a physician, has passed away. His death was not unexpected but where he died was mysterious. Her Grandfather had told his wife that he was going to meet Natalia but instead he went to a village none of them had any connection with and there he died. Natalia's mourning for her grandfather is wrapped up in her obsessive desire to understand his sudden journey to that village and the few pocessions he took with him on that final trip.
While growing up Natalia and Grandfather shared many rituals. Her strongest childhood memories are of the two of them going to the local zoo and Grandfather's repeated readings of The Jungle Book stories to Natalia. His habits and storytelling formed the backbone of Natalia's identity and her connections with her homeland. These stories play a major role in the novel.
One of Grandfather's stories is about "the deathless man". This man is a kind of hobo Dorian Gray. Grandfather meets up with him several times over the course of his life. Each time the vagabond explains that he is immortal and indeed Grandfather sees no signs of aging in the man. The man is collecting the souls of the dead, a never ending harvest in this country. Is he the Devil?
Another of Grandfather's important stories took place during one of the hard, snowy winters of WW2 when Grandfather was a young boy. As a result of German bombings, a tiger had escaped a local zoo. Fear of the tiger paralyzied the village. Here was a danger that could stalk them in complete stealth unlike the waves of bombings and soldiers the war provided. The defiant tiger seemed to befriend a poor, deaf-mute woman in the village. She was the abused wife of the local butcher until the butcher suddenly disappeared. Bias, misunderstandings and terror led the citizenry to conclude that the woman must have killed her husband and fed him to the tiger.
Obreht moves us forward in The Tiger's Wife through Natalia's search and the folktales of the character's and country's past. This is no anecdotal filled stop and lurch ahead again novel. Obreht moves fluidly between the fables and the narrative storyline of the book. The result is a complete portrait of Natalia, her family, her heritage and her country and a powerfully moving mixture of opposites. Natalia's modern look at life and death through science and the myths and superstitions that ruled the past and govern the locals search for peace for their dead.
The Tiger's Wife is a stunning novel. You cannot help but be impressed knowing that it is also a first novel but I think that I would be just as impressed if it were Obreht's twenty-first novel. In perfectly chosen words and through the experiences of a complex young woman we learn the labyrinthine hundred year history of an unknown but very familiar region of the world. Natalia's pilgrimage into her Grandfather's life is an absorbing reading experience from a humane and adult perspective.