It’s nothing but marvelous that 'The Tiger's Wife,' called one of the year 2011’s ten best books by the New York Times, was written by a young woman, author Téa Obreht, still in her 20’s. The literary quality is high and the grasp of the complex story seems worthy of a mature writer.
Sometimes, however, I had trouble following the plot and for a long time even pinpointing the locale of the adventure (the Balkan states, what was once Yugoslavia.)
The main narrator is Natalia, a young woman doctor setting out with a friend to take vaccines to an orphanage across the border. Her beloved grandfather, also a doctor, has died suddenly and she needs to find out what happened to him, and where. The story quickly veers off into the grandfather’s childhood and his lifelong love for animals. More than 100 pages later, we resume Natalia’s journey to the orphanage.
This book was entertaining and rewarding each time I picked it up. I cannot say this was one I could not put down. Lapses of a couple of days meant needing to pick up threads of the story again. The author’s characters and descriptions of village life are beautifully detailed, and seemingly endless events, including war, bombings ,marauding soldiers, old resentments, village myths, and alliances unfold.
Two continuing themes run throughout. Every so often a character known as “the deathless man” appears. Despite being drowned and later shot in the head, he maintains a cheerful outlook and refuses to die. Natalia’s grandfather meets him early in the book and on other occasions, converses with him, and tries to understand how this can be.
The tiger’s wife is the other theme. A tiger appears near a village where Natalia’s grandfather grew up, and even as a child he knew what this creature was from his fascination with Kipling’s The Jungle Book, carried with him since he was tiny. The villagers are terrified by the unlikely reality of an African tiger invading their part of the Balkan states. The tiger’s wife tale commences here, and astute readers will remember the granddaughter’s statement near the start of the book that no one could understand the grandfather’s life without knowing his relationship with both the deathless man and the tiger’s wife.
It’s left to granddaughter Natalia to unravel the mysteries at the last part of the book, which remains fascinating to the end and has the ability to transport the reader into magical places far away, and times back in history.