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The tiger's wife : a novel
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New York Times Review
Think back to the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, with their profusion of names that are difficult to pronounce and acts that are painful to recall: the massacres at Brcko and Srebrenica, the bombing of bread lines in Sarajevo, the destruction of Mostar's 400-year-old bridge. None of these appear in Téa Obreht's first novel, "The Tiger's Wife," yet in its pages she brings their historic and human context to luminous life. With fables and allegories, as well as events borrowed from the headlines, she illustrates the complexities of Balkan history, unearthing patterns of suspicion, superstition and everyday violence that pervade the region even in times of peace. Reaching back to World War II, and then to wars that came before, she reveals the continuity beneath the clangor. A metaphor for the author's achievement can be found in her tale of Luka, a dreamy, brooding butcher's son from a mountain village called Galina. A decade after World War I, Luka leaves Galina and walks 300 miles to the river port of Sarobor, where he hopes to master the gusla, a single-stringed Balkan folk instrument. Arriving there, he finds that gusla music is nearly forgotten, overtaken by rollicking modern tunes played by lusty, boisterous bands. Still, he seeks out old men who know the traditional songs, falls under the spell of the "throbbing wail of their voices winding through tales remembered or invented" and acquires their art. Although his gift is for lyrics rather than music, "there are those who say that any man who heard Luka play the gusla, even in wordless melody, was immediately moved to tears." When a woman asks why he doesn't prefer an instrument with a greater number of strings, he responds, "Fifty strings sing one song, but this single string knows a thousand stories." The principal collector of Obreht's multiplicity of stories is her narrator, Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor who lives with her mother, grandmother and grandfather in an unnamed Balkan city early in the 21st century. Natalia likes to see herself as somebody with an edge: too rational to be cowed by old-fashioned superstitions, too modern for corny old-fashioned folk music. She prefers Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. As a little girl, Natalia adored her grandfather, a respected doctor and professor, and tagged along on his regular visits to the zoo, which was formerly a sultan's fortress. "Past the aviary where the sharpeared owls sleep," they would walk to the moat where tigers loped, their "stripe-lashed shoulders rolling." There she would listen, rapt, as her grandfather spoke of a girl he once knew who was known as the "tiger's wife." At the time, Natalia thought this was a fairy tale. After all, her grandfather always carried a copy of Kipling's "Jungle Book" in his breast pocket. To his granddaughter, he was a fount of fantasy, her own private bard. In "The Tiger's Wife," Obreht weaves the old man's richly colored reminiscences like silk ribbons through the spare frame of Natalia's modern coming-of-age, a coming-of-age that coincides, as her grandfather's had, with a time of political upheaval. When Natalia is a teenager, war returns to the Balkans. The zoo closes, and a curfew is imposed. Natalia and her friends immerse themselves in "the mild lawlessness" that surrounds them. Among other things, this means spurning her grandfather and dating a young tough who sells black-market contraband. But late one night, missing the old man, she agrees to follow him on a wild goose chase whose purpose he won't explain. After following him through dark, empty streets, suddenly she sees what he sees: an elephant, a refugee from a defunct circus, being walked to the city's embattled zoo. "None of my friends will ever believe it," she exclaims in regret. "You must be joking," her grandfather replies, rebuking her: "The story of this war - dates, names, who started it, why - that belongs to everyone. Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who've never even been here or heard of it before. But something like this - this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. . . . You have to think carefully about where you tell it, and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?" Chastened, Natalia asks if he has other stories "like that," stories "from before." The question will transform her into a bard herself. Ingeniously, Obreht juxtaposes Natalia's matter-of-fact narration with contemporary folk tales that are as simple, enthralling and sometimes brutal as fables by Kipling or Dinesen. Soon after the war, the adult Natalia adds to this trove as she travels with a fellow doctor on a mercy mission to a town across the new border to inoculate orphans - orphans who have been created, she knows, "by our own soldiers." "Twelve years ago," she explains, "before the war, the people of Brejevina had been our people." Back then, crossing borders was a formality, but now an unwary welcome is out of the question. Still, the family that plays host to the doctors treats them to a generous feast and takes care not to mention politics, religion or family matters. Nor do they explain the presence of a band of strange, sickly people roaming their property, digging holes day and night. The diggers, Natalia learns, are hunting for the buried corpse of a relative who died without proper rites, whom they believe is blighting their family from the grave. They have come to Brejevina to right that wrong and expunge the curse. Sensible, educated Natalia finds that she can't scorn their conviction. In fact, she has family rites of her own to attend to, a detour she must make to placate her grandmother. It's on the drive back from this detour that Natalia recalls her grandfather's story of Luka. BY this time, though, she has learned that neither Luka nor the tiger's wife were characters from fairy tales. They were real people who lived in the village of Galina, the birthplace not only of Luka but of Natalia's grandfather. The tiger who gave the "tiger's wife" her name was real too: he made his way to Galina in 1941, spooked by bombs that fell on a Balkan city. In the woods above her grandfather's village, Natalia tells us, the sound of the animal still vibrates amid the trees, a "tight note that falls and falls." Arrestingly, Obreht shows that you don't have to go back centuries to find history transformed into myth; the process can occur within a lifetime if a gifted observer is on hand to record it. Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in 1985 but left at the age of 7, before the major conflict took hold. She lived in Cyprus and Egypt, then moved to the United States in 1997. In other words, she did not live in the former Yugoslavia during the war-torn years this book revisits. Filled with astonishing immediacy and presence, fleshed out with detail that seems firsthand, "The Tiger's Wife" is all the more remarkable for being the product not of observation but of imagination. For Obreht, the mind's witness is more than equal to the eye's. And her narrator, in retelling the experiences of her grandfather's generation, enfolds them into her own. As his vision joins hers, old and new memories collide in a vibrant collage that has no date, no dateline. Obreht illustrates historical complexities with fables, allegories and events. Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to the Book Review.
Library Journal Review
A tiger that's fled the zoo during World War II and the "deathless man" who collects the souls of the departed: two tales told to young medic Natalia by her grandfather that frame this bold, imaginative debut, effectively capturing the fearfulness that precipitated the recent fighting in the author's native Balkans. Obreht's storytelling is complex, humbling, and sheer magic. (LJ 1/11) (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
The sometimes crushing power of myth, story, and memory is explored in the brilliant debut of Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker's 20-under-40. Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor living (and, in between suspensions, practicing) in an unnamed country that's a ringer for Obreht's native Croatia, crosses the border in search of answers about the death of her beloved grandfather, who raised her on tales from the village he grew up in, and where, following German bombardment in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo in a nearby city and befriended a mysterious deaf-mute woman. The evolving story of the tiger's wife, as the deaf-mute becomes known, forms one of three strands that sustain the novel, the other two being Natalia's efforts to care for orphans and a wayward family who, to lift a curse, are searching for the bones of a long-dead relative; and several of her grandfather's stories about Gavran Gaile, the deathless man, whose appearances coincide with catastrophe and who may hold the key to all the stories that ensnare Natalia. Obreht is an expert at depicting history through aftermath, people through the love they inspire, and place through the stories that endure; the reflected world she creates is both immediately recognizable and a legend in its own right. Obreht is talented far beyond her years, and her unsentimental faith in language, dream, and memory is a pleasure. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal Review
In a war-torn Balkan country, a young doctor remembers her grandfather and tells a series of interlinked tales both historical and magical featuring the tiger's wife and the deathless man. In this account of love, loss, and war in the modern world, Obreht's vivid writing creates unforgettable visions of unique settings. (Mar.) (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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