The Tiger's Wife

Though Tea Obreht's novel The Tiger's Wife wouldn't be classified within the fantasy genre, her debut novel is quite magical, a story ground in reality but elevated by her the mysterious and intriguing workings of her imagination. Set in an unspecified Balkan nation, Obreht weaves a dynamic tale of family, loss, and mystery against the backdrop of a war-torn country. Natalia is a young doctor, heading to an orphanage on the coast with her ballsy friend Zora to administer much-needed medical care to the children in residence at the orphanage. Natalia's journey is marred by the news of her grandfather's recent death. Though Natalia was the only family member privy to the knowledge of her beloved grandfather's illness, his mysterious passing in a coastal village just an hour's drive from the town to which Natalia is headed further confounds the young grieving doctor.

As Natalia works through her grief and confusion, she revisits the routines which she shared with her grandfather and the many unbelievable stories he shared with her over the years. Trips to the city zoo with her grandfather's well-loved copy of The Jungle Book always stowed in his jacket pocket are at the center of her reminiscences, while stories from his childhood in Galina and of repeated encounters with a deathless man are crucial pieces of the puzzle that is Natalia's memories of her grandfather.

The fantastical narratives that Natalia relates as shared by her grandfather offer irrefutable evidence of Obreht's storytelling talent. There is the tiger's wife, the deaf-mute girl whom Galina townsfolk accuse of having relations with a tiger that inhabits the nearby woods after a bombing destroys the zoo walls that for so long bound the tiger's world. As a boy of nine years old, Natalia's grandfather was enraptured by the mystery and danger of the tiger, seen by so few but feared by so many. But even more so, he was enamored with the tiger's wife, a mere girl with such vast power as to tame a feline beast. And then there is the deathless man whom Natalia's grandfather meets with much skepticism at multiple points over the course of his life. Natalia's grandfather, a doctor, is first called to examine the deathless man after he asks for water from the bed of a coffin, only to remain unbelievably but undeniably alive after two bullets to the head. The doctor enters a bet with the deathless man, unable to comprehend such blatant immortality, placing his weathered copy of The Jungle Book as a wager. Natalia recounts and explores these stories in an effort to better understand her grandfather and the circumstances surrounding his death, circumstances to which no one was fully privy or able to fully grasp.

Obreht is considered quite a find among literary types, especially in light of the fact that she was a mere 26 years old when The Tiger's Wife was published. Her novel is unlike anything I've ever read before, beautifully jumping between Natalia's present bewilderment, the magical and timeless stories of her grandfather, and the circumstances the structured his upbringing so many years ago. Completely enrapturing, The Tiger's Wife is not an easy read but was one I consumed rather quickly on account of its beguiling storyline and masterful storytelling. Tea Obreht is definitely a name to keep in mind and The Tiger's Wife is certainly not to be missed.

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