Set in an imaginary town somewhere in the Balkans, The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, is a beautifully crafted tale that probes the mysteries of life, death, and war. The story begins with a memory. In it, the four-year-old Natalia is following her grandfather to the zoo; a ritual that includes a trolley ride, a blue bag packed with treats for the zoo animals, and an afternoon spent reading passages from The Jungle Book.
In the first pages you learn three important things about her grandfather: He is a doctor, he loves tigers, and he doesn’t want Natalia to look away when bad things happen to people.
Using a rich and descriptive narrative style, Obreht mixes story lines that carry the reader across newly drawn borders in the war-torn Balkans and deep into the past of her grandfather’s childhood hometown, Galina. Natalia becomes a doctor too, and it is while she is on a mission to bring vaccines to the orphans of war across the border that she learns that her grandfather has died.
Natalia’s personal story of loss becomes the overlay for the author’s portrayal of a tragic civil war that has changed borders, separated families, and created deep divisions among previously tolerant religious groups. And there are questions, like what happened to Natalia’s grandfather and why is it that he never referred to the tiger’s wife by name?
As the novel progresses it becomes clear that the author is modeling much of her storytelling around the kind of oral tradition that is familiar in the Balkans—where facts and gossip trade places and everyday events are elevated, with just a little embellishment, to the status of local mythology. Some of the most unbelievable characters are so convincing that you don’t even notice it after awhile. It’s like, “oh, here is the Deathless Man again. I wonder what he is up to now”?
This is a thoughtfully composed and beautifully written novel that works on so many different levels. If blending small-town superstitions and beliefs with the modern practice of medicine and rational thinking in a war-torn part of the world doesn’t appeal to you, then this is probably not your kind of book. But if you are like me, and you want to read a story that transports you to another place and time and that speaks to the heart in the way only magical stories can, then this book is for you.