THE TIGER’S WIFE
By Tea Obreht
Random House, 338 pages, $25
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
With passion and intelligence, Tea Obreht fuses mystery, middle-European myth and the dismal realities of civil war to bring The Tiger’s Wife, her amazing first novel, to life.
Setting her story in a city like Belgrade, where she was born, Obreht sends her narrator across a nameless country in the wake of her beloved grandfather’s death. Like a tiger, Natalia is stalking the truth.
As a sheltered child, a covert rebel in her teens and as passive witness to the destruction of her country, Obreht’s narrator is so self-effacing that she’s almost transparent, letting her stories shine.
She begins with a day at the zoo. “Even though my grandfather is not wearing his stethoscope or white coat, the lady at the ticket counter in the entrance shed calls him ‘Doctor.’” He treats a keeper mauled by a tiger.
Natalia is the doctor now. Her grandfather has died in a border town. Of the family, only Natalia knows what killed him. Even she doesn’t know why he chose to travel so far to do it. “The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death,” Natalia says. At daybreak, it will “make its way to the places of its past.” Her job is to bring back the doctor’s personal effects so his soul can make its way across the divided country to the family home.
There’s more. Natalia feels a little guilty, the way a child does when she outgrows a person who loves her. She’ll feel better if she can bring home his copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, although that’s not the reason she gives her friend Zora for the trip. The stated purpose is to deliver medical supplies to a clinic near the border. Refugees and their children need medical help. It sounds simple, but nothing is simple in this book.
Cross-hatching between past and present, memory and imagination, Natalia is unpacking her grandfather’s life in a country defined by myth and torn apart by war.
The more she tells, the richer The Tiger’s Wife becomes. Tigers, past and present, real and legendary, inhabit the novel, breaking out of zoos in the wake of two wars, terrorizing villagers in her grandfather’s childhood home. And, Natalia tells us, falling in love. The butcher’s deaf-mute wife sneaks out to feed it. Her brutal husband dies. She is pregnant, but whose baby is she carrying? Other characters have their moments, every memory enriches the next.
There is, for instance, the matter of the deathless man, whose story is brilliantly interwoven. There’s the family Natalia finds digging up a vineyard near the clinic, looking for the bones of a relative buried decades before. Everything in this novel by the youngest of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” is connected. Every path, from the one out of the zoo to the one into that vineyard, intersects.
A compelling, persuasive writer, Obreht brings improbable elements to life on the page. Better, she makes them snap together with such magical skill that even the skeptical reader believes.
Kit Reed is a free-lance writer and novel ist based in Connecticut.