A few years back, while watching a National Geographic documentary on Siberian tigers, the preternaturally talented young writer Téa Obreht was struck by the image of a researcher’s wife calling sweetly to the tigers at a reserve. The great, fierce, ebony-striped beasts approached the woman and, as Obreht remembers, became puddles around her. That image sparked a story Obreht eventually set aside, but the tiger, its most interesting character, stayed with her and, in her imagination, began haunting a city.
Thus was born the gorgeous, engrossingly nuanced The Tiger’s Wife, published March 8 by Random. Featured on the front page of the March 13 New York Times Book Review and reviewed in dozens of national publications so far, the book has already gone through seven printings and just made the March 27 Times Best Sellers list. It’s also No. 1 on the National Indie list, and the prickly Michiko Kakutani went so far as to call it hugely ambitious [and] audaciously written. (For the record, I wrote the starred LJ review.) Clearly, this is one of the season’s top debuts‚ and indeed top novels.
Born in Belgrade in 1985, Obreht fled Balkan violence with her family in the early 1990s yet returns to the region in her novel‚ without naming actual cities or the countries that devolved from Yugoslavia. Though her book opens with young medic Natalia crossing a newly minted border, it proceeds not through realist depictions of war and its aftermath but through what are virtually folktales. Her tiger, liberated from a zoo by World War II bombardment, settles around the village where Natalia’s grandfather lived as a boy and bonds mysteriously with the butcher’s battered, deaf-mute wife. Obreht gives several villagers rich and telling backstory and, when shifting to the present, has Natalia recall her grandfather’s eerie tales of the deathless man who harvests souls of the departed.
Why privilege sometimes fantastical story over cool, hard fact? I wanted personal rather than cumulative history, explained the keen and effervescent Obreht in a phone interview. The complexity of human beings is so much more interesting than details of battle, which I would be learning at a distance. Even for the next village those details are secondhand. Raised on Balkan folktales, she confesses to a passion for the genre‚ she also collects German and Russian tales‚ and she gives credit to her ever-inventive grandfather for her love of stories and her way of telling them.
As Obreht’s family moved on to Cypress and then Egypt, she paid attention to their stories, too. In places with so much history, she offers, people can tell you anything. Are all the stories true? Whether or not, when they enter into the book, there’s magic in accepting that. America, when she landed here at age 12, was a different story: The history is much more well known, with less time between events‚ and so perhaps less prone to wild exaggeration. But Obreht loves American ghost stories as well as the mythology of the Wild West‚ it’s known the world over!‚ and believes that a certain gothic element in her writing derives from her American life.
Whatever stories she lays claim to, Obreht effectively uses them to explore her homeland and, more deeply, the propensity of humans to fear what they don’t understand. The tiger has come from afar, as has his wife, as the suspicious villagers call the deaf-mute woman; born in a distant city, she is also of a different religion. They are outsiders, innocents who don’t comprehend what’s around them and must make their own way. Say Obreht, They only exist for the village and only in the context of ignorance.
Perhaps simply reading their story will help diminish our own ignorance. Declares Obreht, when asked whether art can make a difference, Any time art moves you, it’s a step forward, though I don’t know what it’s a step toward. Stepping toward this book, you will indeed be moved.
author photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan