Obreht makes powerful debut with ‘Tiger’s Wife’
“The Tiger’s Wife” (Random House), by Tea Obreht
Saturday, March 12, 2011
In Tea Obreht’s powerful debut novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” the names have been changed to protect the innocent, and plenty of the guilty as well.
In this novel set in the postwar Balkans after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, there is no Sarajevo, Pristina or Belgrade — coordinates that might be familiar to the average American reader.
Instead, Obreht, who was born in Belgrade but grew up in Cyprus and Cairo before immigrating to the U.S., sets her story in mythical cities and towns with made-up names like Sarobar, Brejevina and Zdrevkov.
This choice frees up Obreht not only from the requirements of history but also from a lot of messy detail about who did what to whom. And it allows her to explore the supernatural at the vortex of reality and myth — a place uniquely situated to dealing with the aftermath of a series of bloody, genocidal wars.
Named one of the “Best 20 Writers under 40” by The New Yorker, where an excerpt of “The Tiger’s Wife” appeared as a short story, Obreht tells her story with a remarkably confident hand, deploying sentences so tightly wound they often seem ready to explode, and seamlessly weaving quotidian detail with magic realism to create an enraptured vision amid the decrepit orphanages and rundown clinics that pepper the postwar landscape.
The novel’s main action takes place as two young female doctors cross an uneasy border to vaccinate the children of former enemies — part of a larger effort to build goodwill.
Along the way, the novel’s main character, Natalia, learns that her grandfather has died in an obscure town not far from where she is headed.
This discovery sets off a long series of reminiscences about the grandfather, with whom she used to faithfully visit the local zoo until the war shut it down.
As Natalia deals with consumptive, undernourished children, war-wizened drunks, diggers intent upon recovering a long abandoned corpse of a fallen comrade and a semi-sacrilegious monk, she weaves in her grandfather’s tales of the Deathless man, who serves as a proxy for the grim reaper, and the Tiger’s Wife, a deaf Muslim woman living in a Christian town, whose story suggests a metaphor for the larger conflict.
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