2011 Catapult Notable List – #3
I moved this one up and down this list, for some reason, before finally settling on the fact that I was blown out of my shorts by it when I read it. This is another case (like Rules of Civility) where I need to forget about the whiny complaints of others and just go with my gut – and my gut tells me that Téa Obreht is one hell of a writer. Listen to the fawning praise I heaped upon her in March:
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 stand by that lofty assessment.
The summary, such as it is: 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 traveled without a real 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 thought possible and finds that all the answers she seeks lie within the stories of her grandfather.
Obreht’s mixing of timelines, folklore storytelling, and mythology within the landscape of a war-ravaged, modern setting really does the trick. I was, and continue to be bowled over by the fact that she wrote this when she was just 24 years old. (She’s another of the New Yorker ’20 Under 40′ that I can’t shut up about.) The stories that live within her – released into this novel – seem to be ageless or timeless. The “deathless man” could be a story told 500 years ago, or a thousand years ago, yet, someone could have told it to me yesterday & I would have believed every word. Just take it slow, enjoy it for what it is, and give it to a friend when you’re done. Destined to be a modern classic.