Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is a mix of folklore, war story, and magical realism. With this bestselling novel, she re-imagines the land of her birth, woven through with war-torn tales of the Balkans, family history, and fantastic legends inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and a strange cast of bizarre creatures. Written while attending Cornell University, the novel was first published as an excerpt in the New Yorker in 2009. The book was then more famously released to an internationally positive reception in 2011 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK and Random House in the US.

About a girl…

The novel is narrated by Natalia Stefanovic, a 30-something doctor who lives with her mother and grandparents. Her grandfather’s death is the impetus for her inner-and-outward exploration of time and memory; of myths and folklore; of music and all those moments of stoic-even-angry silence. While not strictly autobiographical, the book is a fictionalized love letter to Obreht’s own grandfather. In the novel, Natalia’s musings are an attempt to reconcile with the reality of a life “stolen” from her too soon by cancer, and a man she respected but who she never understood.  

Spanning the mid-20th century into the 21st century, the novel exposes superstitions, ignorance, and grotesque brutality. While not intended to be an overtly political tract, the novel is by turns eye-opening, troubling, and heartbreaking. War took everything, even hope. Soldiers, bombs, and violence obliterated whole cities and massacred families. Communities were scattered and dismantled. Through this coming-of-age story, Natalia emerges from the ashes and rubble with a fierce independence and the desire to make her grandfather proud.  

Natalia has followed in her grandfather’s footsteps in becoming a doctor, but her family has always relished secrets. It isn’t surprising, then, that she is the only one who knows that he was sick (and dying of cancer) when her grandmother gets the call from the morgue. She’d promised to keep his secret, and she doesn’t divulge it even after his death.  

While Natalia knew something of his decline, even she didn’t know why he’d headed to Galina, the place of his birth, to search for the “Deathless Man.” Instead of fulfilling his mission of resurrection or fulfilling his oath, her grandfather died alone in a clinic, and she doesn’t know why. While she can no longer get closure or answers from her grandfather, she digs into the undercurrent of his most memorable and repeated stories in her search for truth and connection. As she browses through the depth of memory for all his best-loved tales, truth is stranger than fiction.

What is real? (or magic realism?)

Illusion and reality play upon the storylines. The tiger really did go to Galina, and his presence can still be felt in the woods. The stories become immediate and real, but also more tragic. In those stories and in the immediacy of her journey, there’s sickness, orphans (after-effects of rape), looting, and disappearances. There are stories of how the bodies were strewn across the landscape and left floating down the river. More than all that, though, there’s survival against all odds, even against the predetermination of Death itself.

Tied in with the fear of death, of nature, and of the Devil, Obreht offers up the strange episode of the tiger’s wife. What Is it about the deaf-mute girl that is so important and why does she develop such a kinship with the tiger? The tiger may killed her husband (as well as the celebrated hunter, Darisa the Bear), but there’s a certain curious mythic quality to the domesticated tiger (born in a circus) who gives into his baser instincts to kill and survive. Then, there’s also that mention that the tiger might just shed his skin and go in to see his “wife” like a Devil, god, or selkie.

A Matter of Influence

With the interwoven topic of death and the Trickster-like figures, Obreht has been compared with Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer was famous for that folkloric quality, but he’s also been inextricably linked through his stories and history to Holocaust literature. Now, Obreht is linked to Balkan and Yugoslavian literature, but her works also place her in the company of writers like Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

She did not directly experience the death and carnage, but she draws from stories told by her family, friends, and acquaintances. (Even though they escaped when she was 7, she imbues an exile’s sense of angst, or PTSD at a distance, of lost innocence and found experience far surpassing her years. She should not know that pain.)

It’s the power of her prose that has already ensured her a place in literary history, but she has also been recognized for her work with the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. Beyond this debut novel, Oberht has published stories and essays in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine.

Her next novel, Inland, is scheduled for release in Fall 2019. She also took her pen name (and changed her surname) based on her grandfather’s deathbed wish in 2006 for her to publish using his last name. In many ways, then, her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is a tribute to her grandfather: his life, his experiences, and his generation; but she also manages to bridge the gap. She writes across generations, giving voice to all those who were (and are) silenced.

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