The Tiger’s Wife is a recently published novel by a young author named Tea Obreht, and it is quite simply one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time. Obreht has been named to The New Yorker’s list of “20 Under 40″ — the magazine’s choice of the most exceptional young writers currently producing distinguished work , and she certainly deserves to be included in this elite group. Her novel is unlike any other I have come across — a haunting combination of mystery and myth, complex in structure, and filled with beautiful descriptions. It calls out to be discussed.
The protagonist is a doctor named Natalia, living in an unnamed country, probably in the Balkans. She tells of her relationship with her beloved grandfather, who took her to the zoo as a child, to see the tigers, and how she never forgot that experience. Her grandfather was a doctor, too, and in many ways, he inspired Natalia. Now she learns that he has died, not at home, but in another faraway town, under mysterious circumstances. Although she is presently involved in a challenging project bringing medical care to a remote orphanage, she fells compelled to break away and seek answers to the questions surrounding her grandfather’s death.
As the book unfolds, Natalia shares several curious stories her grandfather told her — including one about a tiger that escaped from the zoo during the war years and became a threatening presence in a small village, ultimately befriending a deaf-mute woman who was feared by her superstitious neighbors; and another, about a strange figure identified as the “deathless man,” who seemingly could not die himself but brought notice of impending death to others.
Obreht weaves the many strands of her tale into a luminous design that is wondrous to behold. As Natalia searches for understanding, the reader feels transported on a similar journey, not only fascinated by the grandfather’s eerie tales, but also transfixed by the young doctor’s harrowing discoveries. Numerous references to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (a copy of which is the grandfather’s most prized possession) serve to add another layer of richness to the story.
You will continue to think about The Tiger’s Wife long after you’ve turned the last page, and I guarantee you will want to talk about it. I’m already looking forward to reading Obreht’s next book — she is truly impressive.