By now it is likely that you have heard about The Tiger’s Wife, the debut novel from Tea Obreht. The advance praise this book has received is just short of the “I have seen the future of rock and roll, and his name is Bruce Springsteen” hoopla that preceded the release of Born to Run. And while The Tiger’s Wife is not the greatest rock album of all time, it is one hell of a book, and certainly deserving of all the attention it has received.
From The New York Times to The Christian Science Monitor to The Los Angeles Times and every possible publication in between, The Tiger’s Wife has been touted as THE book of 2011. No doubt part of the reason lies with story of the author herself: at 25, Serbian-born and US-raised Obreht is the youngest member of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” a group of young writers the magazine has subtly labeled “the future of American fiction.” I don’t know about the rest of the group, but if The Tiger’s Wife is any indication, they are dead-on in Obreht’s case.
The novel’s narrator is a young physician named Natalia who is on her way to treat orphans in a neighboring Balkan country after years of civil war when she learns that her beloved grandfather has died. Her memories of him and her quest to discover the circumstances of his death are interwoven with the folktales he used to tell her on their trips to the zoo in “The City,” an unnamed place that is obviously her stylized version of Belgrade. Two of these tales form the second and third plot lines of the book: the story of the deathless man and the story of the tiger’s wife.
“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” Natalia says, “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.”
I won’t go into any detail about the two tales here; part of the joy of this book is encountering them for the first time. Because one thing is clear from the first few pages: Obreht is a magician with language. Her prose is beautiful without being flowery, and the pacing of the novel changes slightly to fit each of the separate stories perfectly. Through this gift with language she shows us the importance of stories and storytelling in the lives of individuals and communities.
The Tiger’s Wife is the kind of book you savor, get lost in, and are sad when it’s over, wishing it had gone on for a hundred pages more. Hopefully we will see many more novels from this fine young writer, because (to paraphrase the line quoted above) I have seen the future of literature, and her name is Tea Obreht.