In The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht has written an involving novel about the power of myth, memory, and story-telling. In the aftermath of the Balkan war, Natalia Stefanovic travels to the “other side” to help vaccinate children. While she is there, her grandmother calls to tell her that her beloved grandfather has died after telling his family he is going to visit her. When she learns his belongings were left in the clinic of a nearby village, she goes to fetch them, particularly his copy of The Jungle Book, which he has carried since he was a boy.
In remembering her grandfather, Natalia relates two stories that she says contain everything necessary to understand his life, one that he told her and one that he didn’t, that she learned about by traveling to the village where he grew up. The story he told her is about the deathless man, a man he has met time after time who claims he cannot die. The other story is about the tiger’s wife, an abused woman who befriends a tiger that escaped from the zoo during World War II, when Natalia’s grandfather was a boy.
Although I sometimes am unable to suspend my disbelief for magical realism, that is, the technique of mixing realistic story-telling with the magical or supernatural, Obreht skirts it without falling into it. Her book is a meditation on life and death, told in an almost a dreamy way but also in a style reminiscent of a folk tale or myth. The book is also about how people deal with the past by transforming history into myth. The realistic story is interleaved with the two tales.
Although one of the themes is the separation between the groups of people in the Balkans, it is also about their similarities. In a village where Natalia has gone to give vaccinations, she encounters the same types of stories and superstitious beliefs as reflected in her grandfather’s stories about his youth and her grandmother’s injunctions about how to treat her grandfather’s death and possessions.
The book is stunning–a meditation and tribute to the author’s own grandfather, who died before she wrote it, and memories of the country in which she was born.