The Tiger's Wife
by Téa Obreht
I took my time reading The Tiger’s Wife, 25-year-old wunderkind Téa Obreht’s debut novel. It’s a book to be savored. Time and time again, people stopped to inquire about the title. To each, I would say, “It’s wonderful!” but I never talked about the plot. It defies easy summarization.
The first-person narrator of the novel is Natalia, a young doctor who is traveling across the border with a colleague. They are on a mission to immunize children in an orphanage. Well into the journey, Natalia calls home and learns that her beloved grandfather has passed away. It’s both shocking and unsurprising all at the same time; he was old and sick. But the most inexplicable detail of his death is that it took place far from home in a village no one has ever heard of. Supposedly, he was on his way to see Natalia. This is a lie.
The novel is set in a pair of unspecified Balkan countries, and the geopolitical history of the region is a major element, as war and its ramifications are significant influences on both Natalia’s and her grandfather’s lives. But alongside the harsh realism of war is the author’s use of magical realism derived from both her culture and her vast imagination. Obreht’s is a reality where wild animals roam free, where Death is an entity, and almost anything is believable. Her prose is magnificent, magical, and haunting.
I wrote above that I took my time with this book. I paused for reflection. I found myself thinking about life and death and Steven Galloway’s unforgettable depiction of war in The Cellist of Sarajevo. I considered Obreht’s literary influences. But more than anything else, I thought about my grandfather as I read this book. He’s been gone many years now, and my grandfather and Natalia’s bear little resemblance, but Obreht brought him back.
And to think, this is her immature work… What must she have in store for us?