Not Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso, or John Vaillant’s The Tiger – the tiger book that you really need to read is The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, easily one of the best books of 2011 and destined for your bookshelf, whether you know it or not.
Obreht, at just 25 years old and one of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, writes with a grace and style WAY beyond her years that just blew me away. She mixes magical realism, fables, and tall tales with the stark realities of war, loss, and love as if she has been walking the earth for a hundred years.
Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.
In a nutshell: Natalia is on a diplomatic mission across the border of her war torn Balkan homeland to deliver vaccines to an orphanage, when she learns of the death of her beloved grandfather in a remote village far from his home. Knowing that he was gravely ill & never would never have travelled without a reason, she becomes convinced that he was in search of “the deathless man” – a longstanding, mysterious figure from the stories he told her as a child. As Natalia sets out to uncover the mystery of her grandfather’s final days, she learns more about herself, her family’s past, and her country than she ever though possible and finds that all the answers she seeks lie within the stories of her grandfather.
Obreht mixes together Natalia’s contemporary story of life in her ravaged homeland (she was born in the former Yugoslavia, herself) with her grandfather’s incredible stories of “the deathless man” and “the tiger’s wife,” to create a fantastical world grounded in the harsh reality of a region recovering from decades of war. And man, those stories of her grandfather… absolutely incredible. Perfectly wrought, beautifully paced out, and completely enthralling – at times you feel, “I know this tale, somehow…” only to have the rug yanked out from under you, just when you think you’ve figured things out. And every time the deathless man shows up, it sends chills down your spine.
Foreign, yet familiar, impossible, yet true, unsentimental, yet emotional – the elements that she has managed to cull together here are melded absolutely perfectly. A stunning, stunning debut, and one that will stick in your head for long after you’ve turned that final page, I guarantee it.
Listen to Obreht’s interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition.