Published June 8th, 2011
The war-scarred Balkans, past and present, is the subject of Téa Obreht’s intricately woven new novel, The Tiger’s Wife, winner of the 2011 Orange Prize. At 25, Obreht is the youngest-ever author to take the Prize. Obreht, one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 fiction writers, was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt before immigrating with her family to the United States when she was twelve. Boasting an impressive literary pedigree for someone so young (she’s only 26), Obreht has been published in The Atlantic, Harper’s and The Best American Short Stories. Expectations were high for her first time novel—which, as it turns out, is a stunning debut.
In The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht explores the heartbreak of war spanning generations. Its narrator, Natalia, is a young physician on a humanitarian mission to vaccinate orphans across the border of her a nameless country, presumably the former Yugoslavia. In a land filled with ethnic tension and unexploded mines, Natalia’s hardened realism is offset by compassion as she turns to memories of her grandfather, a prominent physician who recently died under mysterious circumstances.
Natalia recalls idyllic pre-war trips to the zoo, where her grandfather first told her about “the tiger’s wife,” a deaf-mute Muslim girl from his village, who marries a brutal butcher and forms a mystical bond with a tiger that escaped from a bomb-ravaged zoo. She also recalls her grandfather’s tales of “the deathless man,” a vagabond who claims immortality and eventually intersects with Natalia’s own life.
These divergent narratives occasionally become confusing, but Obreht manages to transition between Natalia’s struggle to understand her grandfather’s death and the long-ago story of his childhood village, where her grandfather tries to protect the Muslim girl and the tiger from hostile, superstitious locals.
Obreht’s prose is luminous and unflinching, whether describing a dreamlike encounter with an elephant in a city under siege, or a bar filled with war-ravaged veterans, only two of whom “seemed whole.” She deftly combines folklore and realism to capture the complex history, legends and conflicts of the Balkans. Though lacking in closure, The Tiger’s Wife offers an unsentimental testament to the importance of storytelling in the darkest moments of life.
Find more at Balkans Recommended Reading