'The Tiger's Wife': Insidious power of war inspires debut novel's magic
Tea Obreht's debut novel is hypnotic and frustrating as she weaves fable, parable, history and symbol into the fabric of a country being torn apart. The meld isn't always smooth.
A careful and feverishly imaginative writer, Ms. Obreht occasionally loses her grip on the reader's attention. "The Tiger's Wife" is an uneasy, open-ended novel of life during wartime, when humans turn animal and animals turn domestic -- almost. It is a folkloric probe of shape shifting and its overriding metaphor is war, when shapes shift most violently.
Random House ($25)
Much of this novel is gorgeously written; some chapters are extraordinary as stand-alones, like "The Butcher," a dissection of the marriage of Luka the butcher and the deaf-mute wife he batters. Yet, the author doesn't muster enough narrative strength to yoke its more fabulous aspects to the more mundane.
The sections that tend toward the fantastic are stronger than those about the war and the ministrations narrator Natalia and her friend Zora deliver.
Ms. Obreht, who is 25 (what's with the genes of writers like her and "Swamplandia!" author Karen Russell, a hoary 29?), is the youngest writer in The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" compilation, making it on the strength of her 2009 story, also called "The Tiger's Wife."
She launches her book with a startling account of the narrator's earliest memory: A tiger in attack mode at a zoo in a peacetime city. The tension is palpable, the drama riveting.
Then the novel goes complex.
Most of the action seems to take place in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. It tracks Natalia, a physician, as she struggles to deal with the death of her grandfather, mentor and talisman, Dr. Leandro; he, meanwhile, keeps close a copy of Kipling's "The Jungle Book," like this novel a meditation on wildness and death.
The shifts in time and place can be confusing, and the novel works best on the symbolic level, through such figures as the Deathless Man and Darisa the Bear. Natalia's grandfather meets the former in the 1950s, during a conflict. When the Deathless Man, Gavran Gaile, who has drowned, is about to be buried, he comes back to life.
He offers to exchange his coffee cup for Dr. Leandro's "Jungle Book" -- another fantasy about a tiger. The pending exchange becomes a key narrative motif, culminating in a gorgeous scene in a deluxe hotel going to seed.
The tiger, meanwhile, has left the zoo for the mountains around the city of Galina, dropping into town from time to time for food. (Ms. Obreht has said the story of the tiger stems from the bombing of the Belgrade zoo in 1941.)
The tiger befriends the butcher's wife, and more; their bond is among the more mystical elements in this dark novel. The townsfolk, meanwhile, gossip about the tiger and the wife and castigate Dr. Leandro for befriending her. The clannishness that can lead to war is a strong subtext here.
The townsfolk hire a hunter to kill the tiger. Is he up for the job?
"Unlike most hunters, Darisa the Bear did not live for the moment of death, but for what came afterward. He indulged the occupation he was known for so that he could earn the occupation that gave him pleasure: the preparation of the pelts."
Nothing is quite what it seems in "The Tiger's Wife." That's the allure of this novel, a provocative melange of the mysterious and the mystifying.
First Published March 27, 2011 12:00 am