Monday, September 26, 2011

History, Fables Meld in "The Tiger's Wife"

In her rich and often startling debut, The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht exhibits an attraction to wonder, and a finely tuned talent for storytelling. Natalia is a young doctor in an unnamed Balkan country, which is still recovering from the effects of the recent war. While traveling across the border to administer vaccinations at an orphanage, she learns that her grandfather has died. Her grandfather was a doctor himself. His death is the crux of the novel and his life is its bulk.

Old world superstitions are close to the surface in the landscape of The Tiger’s Wife. Near the orphanage a family is vigorously digging up the vineyards. They are suffering from tuberculosis, but refuse treatment. The patriarch is convinced they are sick because he has not yet found the remains of his cousin. A cousin he had to leave behind during the war and buried under the vineyard. Natalia is pragmatic, a woman of science, and knows this can’t be true. But as her time across the border unfolds, interspersed with the narrative of her grandfather, everything begins to seem possible.

Natalia’s grandfather is an equally practical man of medicine, whose experience was nevertheless deeply tied to the lore of the tiger’s wife and his repeated encounters with the deathless man. The narrator, Natalia, invents or extrapolates the background details of the main players in these stories, deepening and obscuring the realities. In her hands no one is an open book.

The tiger who appears in her grandfather’s village is just one example of someone with a storied past. He is an escaped resident of a zoo miles away. His unexpected freedom is the result of a rain of bombs, missiles that liberate him even as they crush the lives of others. The abused, deaf-mute wife of the village butcher does not respond to the tiger’s presence with fear, and neither does Natalia’s grandfather, who is excited to know the Jungle Book’s Shere Kahn is in his own woods. The tiger’s former life depended on familiarity with the hand that fed him, which leads him to the butcher’s wife, inspiring terror and suspicion in her neighbors. Every piece is part of a bigger lattice, brought together by unique turns of fate. Life wouldn’t have it any other way. The tiger turns the village of Gallina topsy-turvy, and convinces her grandfather that he must get out.

Natalia herself is not as vivid as the subjects of her stories. She is a witness to the war, and tries to be a part of the remedy. But her character is mostly built on her grandfather’s stories and her affection for him. Natalia’s love for her grandfather is deep, but not particularly complex. Her father is a markedly absent presence, and this is never discussed, putting more weight on the relationship with her grandfather. Natalia’s rebellions are brief and her grandfather’s pursuits quickly become her own. Perhaps it is a relief in the chaos of war to follow so closely in someone else’s path.

Obreht’s descriptions are rich and affecting. She is terrifically young, barely 26, and was born in Belgrade, moving to the US at the age of 12. Amongst these stories certainly lie parts of her own understanding of her history. Her subject is heavy but she handles beauty just as well and can spot moments of humor amidst acts of betrayal and destruction. Obreht undeniably recognizes human fallibility; she casts light on manipulative actions without judgment, merely incorporating them into the fabric of her tale. People are human and they keep themselves sane through the little fictions they tell themselves. At some point, who is to say what is real and what is merely possible.

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