Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is a brilliant modern fable. The novel interweaves three compelling narratives. The first tells the story of a young doctor’s quest to retrieve her dead grandfather’s personal effects from a war-ravaged region somewhere in the former Yugoslavia. The second thread recounts the grandfather’s lifelong series of encounters with the Deathless Man, who is cursed with immortality and the knowledge of how long others have to live. The third thread is the story of the Tiger’s Wife, a deaf-mute who develops a strange friendship with a feral tiger escaped from the zoo.
Like all fairy tales, the setting is everywhere and nowhere. Though there are frequent references to borders and different sides of a conflict, no actual countries are ever named. And yet the novel is steeped in the history, culture and folklore of the Balkans. This is the land where East meets West, Europe meets Asia, Christianity meets Islam. These meetings both enrich the culture and spawn the recurring conflicts that form the backdrop of the novel.
Another interesting dichotomy at play is the clash of tradition and modernity. Both the young narrator and her grandfather are physicians, steeped in science and skeptical of the superstitions that rule the lives of many of their contemporaries. Both are confronted with phenomena they cannot quite explain, forcing them to decide whether to accept the supernatural.
Obreht was only 26 when this book came out, yet she proves herself a remarkably mature storyteller. The novel begins with a prologue that functions as a near-perfect short story that sets the mood for the rest of the novel. She moves easily from the grim realities of ethnic warfare between neighbors and fantastic depictions of Death’s nephew and the bear-man who hunts the tiger. This is magical realism at its finest. [subscribe2]