Friday, May 20, 2011

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel by Téa Obreht

This is a wonder of a novel! I was looking forward to it after reading two stories by Téa Obreht in The New Yorker, one of which turns out to have been an excerpt from this book. The stories were remarkable for their beautifully crafted language and sheer storytelling power and raised my expectations for the novel. I could not have been more richly rewarded.

Natalia, a young doctor in an unnamed Balkan country still suffering from the effects of a war that has torn the country apart, travels across a new border to vaccinate orphans. Learning that her beloved grandfather, also a doctor, has died far from home, and under pressure from her grandmother to find out the circumstances of his death, she makes a detour to the town where he died.

On this frame, Obreht builds layer upon layer of stories, stories told to Natalia through the years by her grandfather, stories that explain everything about his life and, she comes to believe, about his death. The first story takes place during an earlier war, when Natalia's grandfather was a young boy, and a tiger, freed from the city zoo by German bombs, makes his way to her grandfather's village. The second story is about an immortal man who meets Natalia's grandfather three times over many years, appearing where there is illness and war to gather souls.

Obreht tells these stories bit by bit, with vivid imagery and fully developed characters, interweaving them seamlessly with Natalia's journey. Ultimately, they help her understand her grandfather's life and death while they illuminate a people's dreams, fears and superstitions. At 25, Téa Obreht writes with self-assurance well beyond her years. This is a dazzling debut.

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