Author: Téa Obreht

Random House, 2011

Filed Under: Literary, Historical, Fantasy.

With all the hype about the New Yorker’s 20 under 40, it’s nice to read a debut novel by one of their young authors that lives up to the marketing. The Tiger’s Wife is a captivating combination of history and fable. In her own life and in her grandfather’s stories, the narrator confronts questions of belief in the face of desire for understanding, for relief, and for release. Rather than resolving the world of the novel into one ruled by magic beyond human comprehension, the book’s fairytale elements only accentuate the challenges inherent in faith and doubt.

Natalia is on her way to a medical mission at an orphanage across the border when she receives news of the strange circumstances surrounding her grandfather’s death. Having lied to his wife about going to meet Natalia on her mission, he dies from an illness he’d long concealed, alone in the small town of Zdrevkov near the coast. Figuring out why he chose to slip away from his family to die among strangers drives his granddaughter out to the coast and into his past, into one story she knows and one she will learn.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” Natalia tells us, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man.” These two stories and how she comes to know them comprise the bulk of the novel. The story of the tiger’s wife concerns an escaped tiger that takes up residence in the woods around her grandfather’s childhood home. As a boy in love with The Jungle Book, set on befriending the tiger, he finds himself on the wrong side of his small town’s superstitions. What happens will shape his view of love and the pursuit of knowledge for the rest of his life.

The story of the deathless man concerns a series of chance meetings between Natalia’s grandfather and a mysterious patient. She learns the story in episodes throughout her youth, during peaks and lulls in the Balkan Wars. These chapters were the most powerful, conflating Natalia’s upbringing during wartime with her grandfather’s confrontation with the unknown. Each of these sections showcases Obreht’s talent for handling diverse material while giving each its due, tailoring voice and pacing to both realistic and fabulist subjects.

In general, the writing is stellar. Obreht’s prose is effortless and evocative, beautiful without stealing the show from the story. In one of my favorite passages, she describes a group of orphans coloring:

Fra Antun’s kids sat hunched over wooden benches in the middle of the room. There were glasses of pencils and crayons scattered over the tables, and the color rose up in a glaring mess from the pages the kids were writing on, sitting on, sneezing on, folding into paper airplanes or birds.

I love the image of the color rising above the table “in a glaring mess,” which to me conveys all the activity and excesses of children absorbed in their art.

The worst I can say about The Tiger’s Wife is that the present narrative, the story of Natalia’s medical mission and her trip to Zdrevkov, feels thin in places. Sometimes it seems little more than an excuse for revealing the back story, and it grows thinner as the narrative progresses with the tiger’s wife and the deathless man consuming more and more space. But dwelling too much on the present for its own sake misses the point. The Tiger’s Wife isn’t really about Natalia or the present moment so much as finding the past alive in the present, an idea embodied in her grandfather, the novel’s true main character.

Natalia’s grandfather is a compelling curmudgeon, an aging doctor of high regard in the medical community who still carries his old copy of The Jungle Book with him wherever he goes. But we see him as a child, too, and then as a young man finding his way in the world, and finally as an absence around which the rest of the story turns. In the end, The Tiger’s Wife rises and falls on his shoulders, on his faith, his doubt, and his wonder. That the novel works so well is largely a testament to his character and the questions raised by his past, questions about belief in the face of the unknowable and making sense of the unbelievable.

Similar Reads: The Lazarus Project (Aleksandar Hemon), The Life of Pi (Yann Martel), City of Thieves (David Benioff)