By Téa Obreht. Published in 2011.
The copyright page of The Tiger’s Wife includes the words “Portions of this book appeared previously in The New Yorker in different form”—the tell-tale line reflecting the fact that author Téa Obreht made her name (and quite likely sold her then-unfinished novel) as a short story writer, eventually expanding or repurposing or otherwise adapting a few of her acclaimed stories into her debut novel. That’s not at all uncommon, nor is it a practice exclusive to first-time novelists, but it does sometimes result in novels that feel fragmented rather than whole, with one or two better-polished parts jutting out awkwardly, never quite melting into the larger work.
The Tiger’s Wife is, without question, an episodic novel—one can easily see how individual chapters could have functioned as stand-alone stories—but in this case, the fragmentation works for the novel rather than against it. In many ways, it is a novel about stories: present and past, myth and legend and memory, told and retold and loosely woven together, underlying patterns gradually revealing themselves.
Set in an unnamed, post-war Balkan nation (Obreht and her family emigrated from Belgrade when Yugoslavia first exploded), The Tiger’s Wife opens with Natalia, a young doctor, preparing to cross the militarized border on a humanitarian mission while dealing with the sudden—though not unexpected—news of her beloved grandfather’s death. As a child, Natalia regularly visited the zoo with her grandfather, and as she mourns him, she recalls those trips as well as the stories he told her of his own childhood. A tiger figures into those tales, as does an enigmatic deaf-mute woman reputed to have somehow bonded with the animal. War, the threat of war, and the legacy of war are omnipresent, and a mysterious deathless man hangs over it all, giving an eerie, fantastical quality to otherwise gritty stories.
Acclimating to the many narrative jumps is easy enough, but Obreht’s flourishes of magical realism are downright disorienting, at least initially. Her portrait of life amid modern civil war is so raw and persuasively immersive that the appearance of the deathless man, a character straight out of folklore, seems to demand some sort of rational explanation—an explanation that is not forthcoming. Realism blends with mysticism with slippery ease, in part because many of the characters do not share Natalia’s “modern” sensibilities. As she works to vaccinate the children of a village still dealing with the aftereffects of war, other visitors to that village are working to undo a curse, and the specter of mortality shadows both tasks.
Despite the setting in a perpetually wartorn land, The Tiger’s Wife pays little attention to the whys and whos of the conflict; death in general, violent or otherwise, is the recurring motif. Some of the most moving passages in the book involve people contemplating impending death. In one, Natalia’s grandfather and the deathless man share a gourmet dinner together just before shelling of the city begins. The spot is a favorite of the grandfather—a place of happy, peaceful memories—and knowing that it soon will be destroyed poignantly illustrates the transitory nature of life.
That elegiac mood is pervasive but never mawkish. The tale of a bewildered tiger’s escape from a bombed-out zoo is mesmerizing, depicting the odyssey in nightmarish, almost hallucinatory detail. The grandfather’s encounters with the deathless man are often ghoulishly funny, and the back stories of minor characters from the grandfather’s past are enchantingly folkloric. Indeed, the tone of the novel sounds many different notes, and if the meandering melody it plays isn’t quite what one expects, its lyricism and emotion hold one’s attention, making The Tiger’s Wife an auspicious, haunting debut.