Tea Obreht’s enchanting first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, contains elements of magical realism, family drama, and war narrative. Set in contemporary Yugoslavia but featuring many passages set in the past, the novel forms a tapestry of people and events as it sets out to capture the personality of an entire region.
The narrator of The Tiger’s Wife is Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor who has grown up in an unnamed Serbian city with her mother and grandparents. The most important relationship in the novel is between Natalia and her grandfather, who is also a doctor. At the beginning of the novel, Natalia and her friend Zóra have set out on an aid mission to a village, Brejevina, where they plan to give vaccinations to children at an orphanage. Along the journey Natalia learns that her grandfather has died from cancer, which he kept secret from everyone except her. Natalia begins to recall the stories her grandfather told her over the years—many involving the remote village where he grew up, Galina, and two supernatural characters, the tiger’s wife and the deathless man.
The Tiger’s Wife employs a frame narrative; the story of Natalia and Zóra in Brejevina is frequently interrupted by stories from the life of Natalia’s grandfather and the village of Galina. Some of these episodes are narrated in the first person, from the point of view of Natalia’s grandfather, and others are narrated in the third person, by Natalia.
Preceding the first chapter of The Tiger’s Wife is a short episode from Natalia’s childhood in which she and her grandfather visit the zoo in their home city. Their favorite animals at the zoo are the tigers; the grandfather’s love for the big cats, which began when he read Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as a boy, figures importantly throughout the novel.
Natalia and Zora’s contact in the village of Brejevina is a Franciscan monk named Fra Antun. He puts the two doctors up with his parents, Barba Ivan and Nada. Barba Ivan and Nada are friendly and warm. They tell Natalia and Zóra about the large number of people digging in their vineyard. Natalia has difficulty understanding what the diggers are doing in the vineyard, but she is concerned that the children of the diggers seem to be ill.
The next chapter flashes back to Natalia’s teenage years, when her country was thrown into the grips of a civil war. Natalia describes the restless feeling of living in a city that was technically safe but could not escape the storm of war. Although Natalia’s life goes on with her life as normal, the war does have effects—the zoo is closed and her grandfather, an established physician thought to be disloyal to the Administration because of his age, is forbidden from practicing medicine. Her grandfather refuses to quit doing his life’s work, however, and arranges to visit his patients in secret.
One night when Natalia is sixteen, her grandfather wakes her up in the middle of the night, saying only, “Quietly. Come on.” Her grandfather leads Natalia through the deserted, darkened city but refuses to tell her why he has woken her or where they are going. Finally they come upon an elephant walking down the street. Later they learn that soldiers rescued the elephant from an abandoned circus site. At the moment, though, they are simply awed by the unusual occurrence.
As Natalia and her grandfather watch the elephant, the grandfather is moved to tell Natalia the story of how he met the deathless man, a supernatural character who plays a large role in the mythology of the novel. Natalia’s grandfather describes how, during the war years of 1950s, he worked as a medic for an army battalion. He and his intern are sent to a village being ravaged by an unknown disease. When they arrive at the village, they learn of a strange occurrence—a man who was believed to have drowned suddenly woke up in the middle of his funeral. Someone shot the man after he woke up, but when the grandfather visits the body, the man is still not dead. The deathless man’s name is Gavran Gaile; he claims that he cannot die. Gavran also claims that he can tell whether a person is about to die by reading the strains in their cup of coffee. The grandfather does not believe Gavran and pledges the copy of The Jungle Book, which he always carries, that Gavran is lying. Gavran and the grandfather go to a lake outside of town, and Gavran jumps into the water with his hands tied and bricks attached to his feet. The grandfather stays up the entire night to watch. He assumes that Gavran has died, but in the morning Gavran climbs out of the water.
Back in Brejevina, Natalia wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound a child coughing in the house. Natalia discovers that a daughter of the one of the diggers is extremely ill, and she decides to confront the diggers about the sick child. She finds the child’s father, Duré, and tells him that his daughter needs medical attention. Duré refuses but explains the digging project: twelve years previously, during the war, one of his cousins had to be buried in the vineyard. According to Duré, the cousin’s restless soul is causing the children’s sickness.
The saga of the tiger’s wife is introduced. In World War II, as German bombs fall upon the Serbian city, a tiger escapes from the local zoo. After fleeing the city, the tiger ends up in the forest surrounding the remote village of Galina, where Natalia’s grandfather is growing up an orphan in the home of his grandparents. As a boy, Natalia’s grandfather befriends the town apothecary, who...
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