The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht is the story of Natalia, a young doctor in the former Yugoslavia, who upon learning the news that her beloved grandfather has died, remembers the stories he had told her throughout her life. The main stories she returns to are the story of the ‘deathless man’ and the story of the ‘tiger’s wife’.
This is a wonderful book, so full of life and whimsy, but always in the background is the tragedy of loss and hardship that comes from a land that has been if not at war, then at least preparing for war, for most of the last hundred years or more. I found this book by accident, and when I realised that it had as its backdrop the Balkan Wars that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, I was hesitant, expecting it to be depressing. I am so glad that I ignored my hesitation.
While the various wars that have beset the area are a near constant feature of the landscape, it is never allowed to intrude on the telling of the stories. If anything, the book is about how life continues despite the horror of war, and that human beings always find ways to cope.
It is a country where superstition rules. To begin with we share the frustration of Natalia (and her grandfather) with the prevailing superstition that seems to grip the people, refusing to make way for reason. In many ways this superstition exacerbates that tensions between the different religions and creeds that make up the Balkan people. However, we eventually come to understand that superstition can serve a useful function in providing the survivors of horror, the means to go on.
This is Obreht’s first novel, and at the age of 26, she has already set the literary world on fire. She has won several awards about the place for her short stories, and The Tiger’s Wife was the Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. It is with great anticipation that I look forward to seeing what she produces next.