Okay! Fine. Tea Obreht is a veritable prodigy, and The Tiger’s Wife is uncannily good. Most (no, all) reviewers, as well as the likes of Colum McCann, TC Boyle, and Ann Patchett, say no less. But this novel is not just good for a twenty-five year old. Most of us would kill to kill it like she does.
It’s a story told by a young doctor named Natalia, who travels through an unnamed Balkan nation, having been, about to be, and, maybe, perpetually always, war-ravaged, inoculating children, deriding (but perhaps eventually acquiescing to) local superstition, and, most importantly, seeking out the facts of her grandfather’s last days before his death by cancer. But the reader quickly comes to realize that the collection of a plastic bag full of Natalia’s grandfather’s personal effects fails to explain the man she loved. Rather, his stories, which she re-tells with elaborate and emotional texture, bring her real closure, in turn sending this novel brilliantly toward the borders of fantasy.
Here’s what some critics have said about these legends:
David Ulin: “What these stories represent is mystery, the unanswered questions that, even in a rational universe, exist at the center of the world.”
Michiko Kakutani: This novel “explores the very essence of storytelling and the role it plays in people’s lives…It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass as it is an extraordinarily limber exploration of allegory and myth making in the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs, or supernatural legends) reveal – and reflect back – the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies, and hatreds.”
Liesl Schillinger: “Ingeniously, Obreht juxtaposes Natalia’s matter-of-fact narration with contemporary folk tales that are as simple, enthralling, and sometimes brutal as fables by Kipling or Dinesen…Arrestingly, Obreht shows that you don’t have to go back centuries to find history transformed into myth; the process can occur within a lifetime if a gifted observer is on hand to record it…The Tiger’s Wife is all the more remarkable for being the product not of observation but of imagination.”
Ron Charles: “That The Tiger’s Wife never slips entirely into magical realism is part of its magic – its agile play with tragic material and with us – because, despite Natalia and her grandfather’s devotion to science and rationality, this is a story that bleeds into fable with the slightest scratch.”
This unabashed praise shares a collective awe at how Obreht subtly imagines the thin border between reality and legend that pervades not only her stories, but, more importantly, the lives of the people whom these stories are about. So how does she pull it off? In short, the subtle mysteries of these stories are managed via even subtler narrative moves that generate this mythic atmosphere. Natalia simply sets up the structure of her story near the very beginning of it:
Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life…One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.
This is the novel in a nutshell. But the language here is important to note. Namely, by indicating how she came across these stories, Natalia is prefacing how she herself is going to deliver them to us. Her journey with her friend Zora, which gets sidetracked by news of her grandfather’s death, serves as the framing narrative, told by Natalia in the first person. Chapters are interspersed that recall memories of her childhood with him, visiting the local zoo, admiring the tigers. But suddenly, mid-story, she will declare, “He thought for a long time while we walked with the elephant. Perhaps under slightly different circumstances, he might have told me about the tiger’s wife. Instead, he told me about the deathless man.” And so, the grandfather assumes the narrative in his own voice, recalled verbatim by Natalia. His recollections stand alone as their own short stories (within stories within stories), and they are utterly compelling as such. His encounter with Gavran Gaile, the deathless man, is the story, Natalia indicates, of how he became a child again, spiritually, with his eyes open to his lost faith and to his own death (and, thus, his life).
The story of the tiger’s wife is, indeed, the story of Natalia’s grandfather’s maturation. But it is told by her alone, having pieced together anecdotes through interviews and research. It is consequently imbued with the fantastic, that is conveyed, again, by embedded stories, subplots about vicious hunters, slighted lovers, and a superstitious village. These chapters stand alone, as interruptions of the framed narrative, but internally they are more complex and digressive than any of the other chapters. Obreht has the pupil’s grasp of detail and metaphor, and her appropriation of magical realist elements is deft and subtle. But her management of these narrative levels across and within chapters, and her ability to render relatively unnoticeable rapid and frequent shifts between them, smoothly moving from one embedded story to another, mid-paragraph sometimes, is her most impressive quality. It is this ability to create authorial distance from your subject matter that renders the embedded story most mythical, even beyond the mysterious events of the stories being told. Obreht pulls it all off swimmingly.
Obreht brings it all together with emotional force by novel’s end. When the tales of the deathless man and the Tiger’s wife are complete, we return to the framing narrative, in which Natalia has learned of her grandfather’s death. A sense of her grief has been somewhat elusive to this point, as the reader is more rapt by her stories than by her own predicament. But as she retrieves her grandfather’s effects and returns to her medical task at hand, we see, through her own eventual encounter with the mysterious and mythical, the origin of her impulse to tell all these stories in the first place. What had so far come off as a meandering weave suddenly takes on the feeling of a completed circle, and Natalia takes on extraordinary depth in just a few climactic scenes. Her subsequent mastery of diverse voices, especially her willingness to take on the very voice of her dead grandfather, is thus a direct outcrop of her grief, which will make re-reading her narrative even more powerful.
This is an achievement for Obreht – we think of really good writers as having gone through some sort of mysterious training period, where their craft is almost magically honed by fire in some far unreachable realm. Obreht is too young for that, and, thus, she feels more real. The Tiger’s Wife is sticking with me, and I suspect it will for a while. This alone is a testament to what I hope will blossom into the career that it already promises to be.