Monday, April 4, 2011

“There are some stories you keep to yourself.”

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.

Natalia’s story is a framing device for a deeper, richer tale. It’s the story of her relationship with her grandfather, also a physician, and how he passed his love of tigers along to her. It’s the story of how this improbable love came to be. Her grandfather’s tale telescopes to encompass the stories of both the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man, each of whom he knew in the course of his long life. In turn, their tales telescope into the tales of butchers and apothecaries and bear hunters. These rich, magical, and fable-like stories lead from one character to another and sometimes interconnect in unexpected ways. And they are all a part of Natalia’s growing understanding of her grandfather.

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?

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