It might be obvious by now that lately I’ve been partial to young writers. Karen Russell is a favorite, and Dave Eggers is an obsession (though he’s not that young anymore). I heard about this book a year ago, and put it off for awhile. I’m now kicking myself for that. The Tiger’s Wife is one of the best, most unique, breathtaking books I’ve read in a long time. Téa Obreht brings even more prestige to this seemingly overflowing talent pool of young fiction writers.
The plot is, in some ways, relatively simple. In an unnamed Balkan land, our narrator Natalia crosses the border into war-splintered territory to administer a free health clinic. Like her grandfather, she is a doctor. During her time abroad she learns of her grandfather’s death in small town that happens to be nearby her clinic. From this launching point, the reader is taken on three parallel journeys all involving Natalia’s grandfather, a war-torn Balkan region, and elements of fantasy, death, and catharsis.
The first journey is in the present with Natalia. She must travel to the small town to recover her grandfather’s personal effects (most importantly, a worn copy of The Jungle Book that he always kept in his pocket). Returning to her clinic, Natalia continues to grapple with her grandfather’s somewhat odd death while simultaneously giving injections to orphans and dealing with a band of gypsies digging in a vineyard for the skeleton of an old relative. All the gypsies are sick, and though Natalia offers to treat them, they remain convinced that the only cure is finding the bones of their relative and putting them to rest in a more proper fashion. Natalia helps them with this process, which puts her at the mercy of local folklore and her own swirling ideas about death.
The second journey is told through the grandfather, but in a secondhand fashion. We hear the story through Natalia’s ears of the “deathless man,” an ominous character that the grandfather encounters a few times throughout his life. Their interactions are always in places haunted by death and typically revolve around long, logical conversations in which the grandfather’s respect for science is deeply challenged. These stories are often told to Natalia at defining moments in their relationship and draw her and her grandfather closer together. They are woven into Natalia’s remembrances of her youth, and especially these key bonding moments with her grandfather. One of their traditions involves visiting the zoo to watch the tigers. In the third tale, we see why.
This saga is told by Natalia, and though it is a bit confusing, it seems she learned it by traveling to the remote village where her grandfather grew up and jogging the memory of ancient townsfolk. In this small village, people live very simply. There is a butcher, an apothecary, gossipy women, etc. One winter, as war rages somewhere far away, a tiger (busted out of the zoo by an errant bomb) moves into the pine covered hills above the village. At first he is a tormentor—stealing animals, scaring villagers, ravaging the famed hunter sent to kill him. But it is through the tiger we begin to understand the grandfather. It is also in the village we meet the tiger’s wife.
That’s enough summary I think (or much more than enough), but it suffices to say that each story is slightly woven into the others, and the writing is stunning throughout. Obreht is a natural in so many ways, and I gobbled this book up in two days because I was so eager to wrap myself up in her prose. And of course, the story itself is unbelievable. She has quite an imagination and a way with imagery and description, and it’s also obvious she did lots of research on the Balkan region and the hectic history therein (which clearly influences her deeply—she was born in Yugoslavia).
All in all, this is a truly great story. I know I’ll read it again (though now that I know what happens, some of the wild suspense will be missing), and I can’t wait for her to publish another masterpiece.