The Tiger’s Wife

Téa Obreht’s fame was virtually assured even before publication of The Tiger’sWife, her first novel. Excerpts of the bookappearing in The New Yorker created a stir and earned her inclusion inthat magazine’s “20 Under 40” list of fiction writers. Now we finallyhave the book in its entirety.

Encapsulating The Tiger’sWife in a single phrase or sentence is impossible. This is a novel in nameonly, for it comprises an array of widely different tales held together by theflimsiest of conceits, that of the narrator recalling the eventful life andtimes of her late grandfather. The tales themselves prove individuallyluscious, though not without an unpleasant cumulative effect. It may strikesome as a cavil, but the plain truth is that The Tiger’s Wife, whilecertainly entertaining and of considerable literary merit, is too rich for itsown good: Obreht would have been well-advised toparcel out its constituent elements as stand-alone stories.

Narrated by a youngpediatrician named Natalia, the story takes place in an unnamed land clearlymodeled after the former Yugoslavia, where Obreht was born and spent her earlychildhood. In between her current project of inoculating disadvantaged orphansagainst disease—”The wails of children in distress are monstrouslycontagious: the moment one child strikes up, six more follow it”—Natalia’s thoughts drift to herrecently deceased grandfather, a prominent surgeon, and his adventuresome life.”Everything necessary to understand my grandfather,” she muses, “liesbetween two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of thedeathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the otherstories in his life.”

And so begins the seriesof rollicking, meandering, and at times briefly intersecting tales making upthis novel, with Natalia alternating between recounting episodes from her grandfather’slife and others from hers, some of which also feature her grandfather. In abook brimming with arresting yet overly colorful characters, some tinged withspecks of magic realism, the tiger’s wife herself stands out both for hergravitas and her believability. A lonely deaf-mute married to an abusivebutcher in an isolated mountain village, she is given her derogatory monikerduring the Second World War. Her apparent affection for a tiger that hasescaped the zoo in the country’s bomb-flattened capital and now roams themountain forests prompts salacious and hostile gossip on the part of thevillagers, who eventually decide to kill the majestic creature. Natalia’sgrandfather, a child enamored of Kipling’s The Jungle Book anddetermined to protect the tiger from the frenzied villagers, forges a bond withthe battered but stoic and immensely dignified woman spurned by almost everyoneelse.

Obreht’s storytellingimpulse is so powerful that she cannot help devising extensive backgroundhistories for a host of secondary characters. These tangents distract attentionfrom the main narrative, but often prove intriguing and contain some of thebook’s most enduring images. In the later chapters devoted to the tiger’s wife,for example, Dariŝa the Bear entersthe picture. Before he became a renowned hunter and outstanding taxidermist,Dariŝa spent many nights of hischildhood practicing a crude form of the craft he would later master. Unable tosleep for fear death would pounce and claim his sickly older sister, Dariŝa tried to lure the Grim Reaper to the cellar,where he labored nightly to restore the appearance of dead cats and other smallanimals. “If he kept Death there,” figured Dariŝa, “kept it riveted and preoccupied, thoughtabout it while it shared the cellar with him, it would not wander the house.”

Natalia’s grandfather alsograpples with death, but in the form of a deathless man who crosses paths withhim at several points in his life. The encounters between the two arepredictably strange and surreal, though also surprisingly poignant, none moreso than a dinner in a deserted restaurant in a Muslim city called Sarobor aboutto be pummeled by enemy militia. Obreht is likely thinking of the agonizingSiege of Sarajevo, and Natalia’s grandfather, a Christian married to a Muslimfrom Sarobor, wonders if his time has finally come as he chats with thedeathless man over a plate of John Dory fish.

Death,of course, is precisely what the world associated with Yugoslavia in the 1990s,due to a series of brutal warsthat involved numerous massacres of civilians. In those sections of TheTiger’s Wife revolving around Natalia’s teens and early adulthood, when hercountry splits into several, Obreht memorably depicts the terror, absurdity,and tedium of war. Natalia emerges from these experiences a tough butcontemplative woman, and her observations on the nature of conflict areprofound:

When your fight haspurpose—to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of aninnocent—it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling—when itis about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachmentof your name to some landmark or event—there is nothing but hate, and the long,slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by theones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves andwaves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.

If The Tiger’s Wiferepresents the literary exuberance of a young writer—Obreht is in hermid-twenties—the author’s future novels may well be more restrained, withoutlosing their luster. Indeed, based on what is on display here, it is difficultto imagine that Obreht will ever grow stingy when it comes to augmenting hercentral narrative with enchanting subplots and secondary storylines. And that’sfine: if Obreht narrows her focus and curtails her embellishments, herundeniable flair for storytelling could produce a magnificent novel. Untilthen, The Tiger’s Wife will seduce and confound, fascinate andexasperate.