The Tiger's Wife

By Téa Obreht

Random House. 337 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Jane Smiley


This is how out of it I am. When I started reading

The Tiger's

Wife

, I had never heard of Téa Obreht, I hadn't read the "20 Under 40" issue of the New Yorker, and I was completely unaware that the author of the novel I was reading was a mere 25 years old.

I continued to read in blissful ignorance, and I am here to tell any other ignorant ones who might still exist that the whole experience was, indeed, pretty blissful. I am the control - I read this as if it were just any old novel crossing my desk, and I was repeatedly moved and impressed, not just by Obreht's ability to tell her story (a story with many byways), but also by her fluent, conversational voice and her moments of wisdom about a very complex and dramatic subject, the repeated wars and dislocations in the Country Formerly Known as Yugoslavia.

Maybe the ideal writer to address the story of the Balkan wars of the early 1990s is a 25-year-old, because even though she did live through many of the events, they took place when she was a child, are relatively distant, and are therefore easier to find a context for.

At any rate, The Tiger's Wife opens with the death, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, of the narrator, Natalia's, grandfather. Grandfather has had a long and distinguished career as a doctor, and at the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, he finds himself out of his university job because of his origins on the wrong side of the border - Croatia is Catholic, he is Eastern Orthodox, his wife is Muslim, but he continues seeing patients at their homes, supporting his family, and maintaining a strict routine. He dies while traveling, and neither Natalia nor her grandmother has any idea why he was going to that particular town, or even where that town is.

In the meantime, Natalia and her colleague Zora are asked by a nearby priest to help him stem an epidemic of some sort of respiratory disease in an orphanage, and so they set out with vaccines and other supplies to cross the border themselves and find the monastery where the epidemic is not quite yet raging.

Natalia is like her grandfather and feels a strong kinshp with him - direct, opinionated, practical, and brave without really feeling brave. Her journey leads her to reflect upon her grandfather's life and their relationship, which has been close off and on, and anchored, in Natalia's mind, by stories he has told her over the years. It is these stories that create the tone of The Tiger's Wife.

Obreht both avoids and alludes to traditional stories of the cultures that collide in her story. When Natalia approaches one father, whose child appears to be suffering from the worrisome illness, he is busy in a vineyard, looking for the body of his brother, who had been buried there during the war - he attributes his children's illnesses to improper burial and resents medical inteference. And the reader may recognize in one of Obreht's main characters, "The Deathless Man," allusions to Count Dracula. But her Deathless Man is a mild, philosophical fellow in the employ of his mysterious Uncle.

The tiger himself, to whom Natalia's grandfather is dedicated, takes on mythic proportions when he escapes the zoo, settles down in the vicinity of a small village, and does quite a few un-tigerlike things. As for the tiger's wife, she is a deaf-mute child-bride, brutally abused by her husband, the town butcher, who has his own story, as well.

That Obreht can keep all of these strands of her tale straight in the reader's mind is evidence of her precocious skills as a narrator. That she wishes to is a sign that she is a member of her generation - her goal is to bring the strangeness of subjective experience into the apparently understandable world, not to submerge the world in her characters' inner lives. Her great tool for this is her style - easy, good-natured, gossipy, colloquial. The Tiger's Wife is a far more interesting novel composed in English than it would be if it were translated from Serbian, because Obreht is freer and more adventurous in her narrative voice than a translator would be.

The Tiger's Wife is an excellent novel that reads like a tale that simply has to be told, full of energy and imagination, but also full of hope. Although the history is there, and although Obreht fully understands its pain, her care in describing the postwar landscape and the characters that people it is a testament to life, not death.

Jane Smiley won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel "A Thousand Acres." Her most recent book is "The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer" (Doubleday, 2010).