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....
(The entire section is 2303 words.)
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