In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. The certainty of this process: my grandfather's hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park. Always in my grandfather's breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-lead cover and old yellow pages. I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon while he recites the passages to me. 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.' (p. 3)
For the past two years, Téa Obreht has been a literary darling. Her first two professional sales were to The Atlantic and The New Yorker, respectively. She was chosen last year as one of the latter's "20 under 40" list of young writers to watch and she was also the recipient of the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35." Very high praise for a 25 year-old writer who had yet to publish a single novel. Anticipation thus was very high for her debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, which was released earlier this month. Even though I had extremely high expectations for this novel after having read samples of her work in the magazines mentioned above, The Tiger's Wife managed to meet and in some ways surpass them.
From the first paragraph, quoted above, I was drawn into the story. Obreht has a talent for setting up scenes and to enliven them with intriguing, interesting people. Most writers take several years to develop a good mixture of description and character development; Obreht, for the most part, manages to do this in her debut novel. The several important narrative elements are introduced within the first paragraph: the doctor grandfather and his granddaughter, the tiger at the zoo, the grandfather's copy of The Jungle Book. From here, Obreht begins a spiraling narrative that loops in and out from the initial story of a grandfather taking his granddaughter to the zoo to see tigers.
Set in a nameless Balkan country that has undergone divisions and a twelve-year war by the time of the narrative present, The Tiger's Wife is rife with oblique references to the devastating splintering of Yugoslavia between 1992 and 2009. Yet Obreht chooses to take no sides; her characters live in imaginary cities that could be Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Priština, or any other locale now divided by a common language and sectarian differences. What this does is remove most, if not all, of the tangles involved with the sordid past of the Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, and Turks in this region, allowing for a greater focus on the personal than on the historical.
But this is background, albeit a rich one that informs the stories that the narrator Natalia's grandfather tells her. Soon after the initial flashback unfolds, it is revealed that Natalia, herself now a young doctor working to inoculate young refugees on the other side of the new border that divides her former country into several, has learned that her grandfather died in a remote village while surreptitiously tending to the sick despite his declining health. Natalia reflects on her grandfather, his tales to her, and the reason why he admired tigers and always carried a copy of The Jungle Book in his coat's breast pocket.
These stories, which range from the last days of Ottoman rule through World War II and its immediate aftermath, often possess a haunting, ethereal quality. From Natalia's grandfather's initial encounters with the Deathless man, a seemingly young man who claims to be Death's nephew and who makes a wager with the grandfather, to the bombing of the town's little zoo and the release of a tiger into the area, these tales remind me of some of the better fantastical tales of a Henry James or Gabriel García Márquez (Obreht cites Gabo as a literary influence, particularly Love in Time of Cholera). The mundane, rich as it is in tradition and in what some might term superstitious practices, meshes so well with the supernatural that it becomes easy for the reader to lose herself in the tapestry that unfolds with each flashback.
Obreht's characters are alive and dynamic. She gives the semblance of life even to the secondary and tertiary characters, almost to the point of distracting the reader for a moment from the main narrative elements. Her choice of looping the flashbacks into Natalia's own life works for the most part, although some might find themselves wishing that Obreht had chosen to expand these tales into full-length novels of their own. Desirous as this wish might be, despite the occasional lag in narrative development, ultimately these well-developed side element serve to strengthen and reinforce what I perceive to be the novel's greatest strength: the love of a granddaughter for her grandfather. Everything else only serves to strengthen this well-expressed bond. To date, this is my favorite 2011 release and one of the most impressive debut novels that have been released in several years. Much to enjoy for fans of both contemporary and speculative fiction.