The Tiger’s Wife is an enigmatic, involving tale of life in the Balkans (the actual country is coyly, and rightly, never named). Interweaving the contemporary experience of Natalia, a young doctor, with that of her grandfather and, by extension, an unbroken line of folk memory stretching into the distant past, this first novel by Téa Obreht is equal parts lyrical and shattering. Thrilling passages of poetic description leaven both desperate situations and everyday events, which are presented side-by-side. The grandfather’s stories of the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man, with their archaic, fairytale qualities, become reflective mirrors for three generations of conflict. Just like in wartime, the incredible is juxtaposed with the ordinary; rumor and fact are indistinguishable; and experieces are often dreamlike, urgent, and unexplained.
The novel veers and swoops from World War II to the present, and because this is the Balkans, war is nearly always present. Some armed conflict, or its aftermath, is central to every character. Whether war serves as a background, an excuse, a setting, a motivator of action, or a cause for guilt, it is as ubiquitous and baffling to the people in the novel as it is to the animals in the city zoo who are distressed (to the point of chewing off their own legs) by the bone-rattling explosions of bombardments. Yet I found the most poignant descriptions were of the people of Natalia’s generation, who are shaped by the inevitability of war, indifference, shifting borders, and intractable prejudice.
The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht, now in paperback and available at Vroman’s and booksellers everywhere.