The Tiger’s Wife, an enchanting chronicle of family, tradition, legends and superstition, is made all the more impressive so by the fact that it’s a debut; the first novel of Serbian-American author Téa Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list of great writers. The fame she has gained from this novel isn’t only due to her status as a young writer; it’s because she’s a damn good one.
The story takes place in an unnamed Balkan country on the mend from war, where Natalia, a young doctor, travels on a mission to vaccinate children of a local orphanage. Upon receiving news of her grandfather’s mysterious death, Natalia recalls the stories he would tell her; stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, of a man who became a bear, of dead bodies casting curses on their families. As she experiences a culture clash with superstitious locals, Natalia questions the circumstances of her loss and her own belief in the mythical elements of her grandfather’s stories, and her search for the truth leads her to the supernatural world of the departed.
The story opens with a flashback to Natalia’s childhood, when she would visit the tigers in the zoo with her grandfather, also a doctor, who would carry an old copy of The Jungle Book wherever he went. He is the novel’s second narrator, as he tells her of his meetings with the deathless man, who guides souls to the afterlife. Meanwhile, Natalia narrates stories from her grandfather’s childhood, particularly of the woman in his home village who bonded with a wild tiger and became a target of fear and superstition. Entwined within the three narratives is the theme of a doctor’s relationships with death, how they confront death in their line of work, and how Natalia learns to accept it in her process of grieving.
Obreht’s scope is all all-encompassing in the portrayal of landscapes spanning war zones throughout decades of political unrest, and the backdrop of the grand Balkans wilderness. The Tiger’s Wife is gritty yet surreal, as lyrical and dreamlike as it is stark and unsentimental; a magical book with stunning imagery and memorable characters.
Needless to say, The Tiger’s Wife is an auspicious start to what will be a celebrated literary career. Make note of Téa Obreht as one of the great contemporary writers whose novels will appeal to a wide-ranging audience, fantasy lovers among them.