Everything is illuminated

Cast in wondrous prose, this hotly anticipated first novel blends legend and memory in the Balkans

Téa Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia and came to the United States at age 12. Téa Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia and came to the United States at age 12. (Beowulf Sheehan)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2011

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Last summer, the New Yorker announced its list of the 20 best fiction writers under 40, including such marquee names as Jonathan Safran Foer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Gary Shteyngart. The youngest of the lot, however, without so much as a book of short stories to her credit, was unknown to most readers: Téa Obreht, then just 24 years old.

What Obreht had up her sleeve was “The Tiger’s Wife,’’ her astonishingly assured debut novel. Obreht, born in the former Yugoslavia, came to the United States at 12. She hangs her tale on a slender central conceit: After the war in the Balkans, a young doctor named Natalia tries to reconstruct the final days of her beloved grandfather, also a physician, who has recently died in a village far from home.

Around this straightforward plot twines various legends, both those recounted by Natalia’s elders and those left for her to uncover, and a lush thicket of observation. Above all, this novel illuminates a young narrator coming to terms with the deaths of beloved relatives, of strangers, of old ways. But it is also about discovering what is immortal: not just the vampires of local legend, but also love and cultural memory.

Stubbornly principled, elegant and wise, Natalia’s grandfather lives in an unnamed city resembling Belgrade. He has a deep fondness for animals, especially tigers; he takes his granddaughter to visit the zoo frequently and carries “The Jungle Book’’ like a talisman — “my love of tigers comes directly from him,’’ Natalia tells us.

She has clearly inherited other traits as well: independence, toughness, and respect for the discipline of medicine. When Natalia learns of her grandfather’s death, she is at a gas station pay phone, having answered a page as she and her best friend drive “across the border’’ to deliver vaccines to an orphanage. What she knows, unlike the rest of her family, is that her grandfather had cancer. Charged with bringing back his possessions, she becomes determined to understand why he went off to meet his end alone.

Natalia’s quest brings no certain answers. Obreht seems to suggest that even those we love remain inscrutable, a composite of experiences we can never wholly share. But Natalia locates two tales that made her grandfather who he was, stories that “run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life.’’ The first is a faintly magical yarn from his youth, concerning a tiger who fled the city zoo after its destruction by German bombs in 1941. (Emir Kusturica similarly mined the image of Belgrade’s wounded and wandering animals for his surreal historical film “Underground.’’) Obreht’s tiger is a wild, big-hearted creature. He, too, suffers in the war: “The tiger had no destination,’’ she writes, “only the constant tug of self-preservation in the pit of his stomach, some vague, inborn sense . . . which carried him onward.’’ He finds refuge in the mountains above a village, whose townspeople fear him as an incarnation of the devil. The only ones who revere the tiger are a deaf-mute woman who becomes known as the tiger’s wife, and the small, watchful boy who will grow up to be Natalia’s grandfather.

Natalia unearths this tale herself, but the second story is one her grandfather relates, about his repeated encounters with a “deathless man.’’ As a doctor, he is at first unnerved and then intrigued by Gavran Gailé, who has been cursed with agelessness. “Dying is not punishment,’’ Gailé tells the doctor. “The dead are loved. They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.’’

More or less, anyway. Natalia’s medical mission brings her into contact with a family searching for the lost body of a relative, hastily buried in a vineyard during the war. When it surfaces, it is she who volunteers to bury the body’s last traces at a crossroads, releasing its soul, and to keep watch overnight. That night, Gailé’s words come true, and the dead do give something to the living: a measure of peace. For these children of war, the struggle is clearly as much to let go of the dead as to connect with those who survive.

“The Tiger’s Wife’’ is full of vivid, dreamlike scenes that conjure a place wracked with conflict: a teenager protecting an abandoned lake house from wildfire; a teacher defiantly bringing her class a set of contraband animal lungs; a zookeeper coaxing an elephant down a quiet nighttime street. Obreht’s strength is not only in these images, but in her hypnotic language, whose value inheres not just in its meaning but in its music. In this way, it is like the charge laid on the village diggers by a wise woman, repeated so often that even a local parrot takes up the chant: “Wash the bones, bring the body, leave the heart behind.’’

Obreht’s mesmerizing writing is key to this novel, which succeeds through a kind of harmonic resonance more than a driving plot. For all its historical and mythological specificity, “The Tiger’s Wife’’ is content to let ambiguities remain; Obreht is one fabulist who doesn’t need a moral at the end of her tales. If this novel heralds great things to come, it is because Obreht’s striking ability to explain the world through stories is matched by her patience with the parts of life — and death — that endlessly confound us.

Amanda Katz is a writer, editor, and translator who lives in New York. She can be reached at

By Téa Obreht
Random House, 338 pp., $25