The Tiger's Wife
A deathless man and a woman who loved tigers star in one of the most highly anticipated books of 2011.
â€śThe Jungle Bookâ€ť is like â€śThe Wizard of Ozâ€ť: Everyone knows the story (or thinks they do), so most people donâ€™t bother to read it â€“ or read it to their children â€“ anymore.
Rudyard Kipling might have fallen out of fashion, but his most famous creation has inspired three terrific new books in the past five years. Neil Gaiman used â€śThe Jungle Bookâ€ť as a jumping-off point for his Newbery Award-winning â€śThe Graveyard Book,â€ť while David Wroblewskiâ€™s bestselling â€śThe Story of Edgar Sawtelleâ€ť also acknowledges its debt to the boy who was raised by wolves. Now, that lame, striped hunter, Shere Khan, stalks the pages of TĂ©a Obrehtâ€™s first novel, The Tigerâ€™s Wife.
Obreht, 25, was named one of The New Yorkerâ€™s â€ś20 under 40â€ť notable fiction writers, and â€śThe Tigerâ€™s Wifeâ€ť was excerpted in the magazine. Since the novelâ€™s publication this month, Obreht has been garnering the kind of lavish praise and headlines not seen for a 20-something debut author since Zadie Smithâ€™s first novel, â€śWhite Teethâ€ť in 2000.
Youâ€™re expecting a â€śbutâ€ť here, arenâ€™t you? Let me not keep you in suspense: Itâ€™s that good.
Obreht, who was born in Belgrade and escaped the Balkan War as a child, knows the magic of the words: â€ślet me tell you a story.â€ť While her novel has a modern frame, the heart, meat, and sinew of the novel are the tales a grandfather tells his granddaughter.
â€śEverything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tigerâ€™s wife, and the story of the deathless man,â€ť explains the granddaughter. When the grandfather was a child, a tiger escaped from the capital and roamed the hills above his village, causing the villagers no end of consternation. The lone exceptions were the boy, who adored â€śThe Jungle Book,â€ť and a young deaf woman, who were both firmly on the side of the tiger.
Decades later, the grandfather, Dr. Stefanovic, would take his granddaughter, Natalia, to visit the tigers at the zoo every week and tell her about the â€śgirl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.â€ť
When â€śThe Tigerâ€™s Wifeâ€ť opens, Natalia, now a Dr. Stefanovic herself, is on a humanitarian mission to vaccinate orphans at a monastery when she gets a call that her grandfather has died in a strange village, on his way to see her. In what seems a minor mystery, his personal effects â€“ his watch, glasses, and the gilt-edged copy of â€śThe Jungle Bookâ€ť he always kept in his pocket â€“ have vanished.
Meanwhile, in the village where Natalia is staying, sick people are digging in the fields, looking for the body of a relative who was killed in the war, convinced that their family will not be healed until they find him.
Obreht, who moved to the United States when she was 12, after stints in Cairo and Cyprus, never had to live through the war, which ripped apart what had been Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But her chapters of Nataliaâ€™s teenage years could easily convince a reader she was there.
Obreht also understands the power of myth and superstition. â€śHe learned,â€ť the narrator says of a character, â€śthat when confounded by the extremes of life â€“ whether good or bad â€“ people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.â€ť
The stories Natalia recalls are full of supernatural creatures like the deathless man, a mild-mannered type who always knows when somebody is going to die, but â€śThe Tigerâ€™s Wifeâ€ť doesnâ€™t veer into magic realism. Instead, Obreht uses the tales to create a climate of wonder and horror right out of a fairy tale.
Obreht layers story upon story, creating something almost as dense as a baklava. In the middle of one, sheâ€™ll pause to reveal the complete history of the villageâ€™s lone gun, which is soon to be put to use hunting tigers. Readers with no taste for tangents will want to seek elsewhere. â€śThe Tigerâ€™s Wifeâ€ť can be gorgeous, but the plot doesnâ€™t so much run in a line as glory in atmospheric tangles.
Ladies and tigers have been united memorably several times before in literature, from limericks to short stories. Obrehtâ€™s evocative novel should rank among the most indelible pairings of all.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.