In The White Album, Joan Didion writes that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." Though many of today's stories may be limited to 140 character tweets, Tea Obreht, in her novel, The Tiger's Wife, shows how shared mythology (where history meets speculation) is essential, particularly in times of war and loss.
The Tiger's Wife takes place in an unnamed Balkan country — closest in character to the former Yugoslavia, where Obreht was born. Natalia, a young medical student, is on her way to an orphanage in enemy territory when she learns that her beloved grandfather has died. Though his wife had no idea he was sick, Natalia was his confidant — not only was she aware of his cancer; she was privy to his many incredible adventures, the two most fantastic being the stories of the Deathless Man and the Tiger's Wife.
These myths are fresh on Natalia's mind in the village of the orphanage, where superstitions take precedent over medical science. A family of gypsies suffering from a mysterious illness digs away in a vineyard, looking for the bones of a long-lost cousin who was supposedly buried there, albeit haphazardly, in a past war. One family member explains that his spirit, or mora, "doesn't like it here, and he's making us sick. When we find him we'll be on our way." Their insistence gets Natalia thinking about her grandfather. It turns out he died alone in a clinic nearby in Galina — the town where he grew up. As Natalia travels there to collect his belongings, she realizes it was his search for the Deathless Man that brought him back to his birthplace.
Galina's history is also intertwined with the tale of the mythical Tiger's Wife. In the spring of 1941, disturbed by continuous bombing, legend has it that a tiger escaped from the local zoo and came to call the woods near Galina home. Natalia's grandfather, then just a boy and a lover of The Jungle Book, found the tiger beautiful, but the other villagers, terrified, enlisted a slew of hunters to kill it. The tiger found another ally in the battered (and deaf-mute) wife of the butcher. When she became pregnant even after her husband's suspicious disappearance, the villagers took to calling her the Tiger's Wife, convinced she had made a pact with the devil.
The novel shifts back and forth, chapter by chapter, between the story of the tiger and the gypsies, with brief interludes back to Natalia's experience at the orphanage. This constant movement is difficult to adjust to at first, but any discomfort quickly wears off — Obreht has a knack for making these fantastical stories seem entirely plausible. She keeps the reader engaged not only with the Deathless Man's harrowing fate (doomed to roam the Earth for eternity), but the humor in it.
Man or myth, all of the characters in The Tiger's Wife are lovingly rendered. They could be the subject of their own novels — from the Deathless Man to the apothecary down the street. In fact, the only character in The Tiger's Wife we never really get to know is Natalia, who functions less as an active character than an interpreter of her grandfather's life.
The Tiger's Wife rests securely in the genre of magical realism, inciting comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even Kafka. In terms of structure and pacing, Obreht still has a way to go — the conclusion of the novel comes at the reader too abruptly, leaving us startled. But her attention to detail in creating a believable world — in spite of its magical elements — is the work of a mature storyteller.
Natalia's conclusion at the end of the novel explains that the truth of these stories is less important than the symbolism they provide. She wonders: "If the situation had been different, if the people of Galina had been more aware of their own ephemeral isolation, more aware that it was only a matter of time before war tightened around them — their regard for the Tiger and his wife might have been more cursory. Isn't it strange, they might have said, here is a kind of love story, and then moved on to some other point of gossip." Similarly, whether The Tiger's Wife is the product of Obreht's personal history or her active imagination, it doesn't matter. She has lifted an entire world steeped in tradition and superstition and placed it securely on the page, leaving no detail unwritten — quite the accomplishment considering The Tiger's Wife is her debut.
Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker's Book Bench, The Economist, The Daily Beast, Bookslut, Time Out New York, Bookforum and more. She is currently at work on her first book, on women and horror movies.