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Allegory Abounds in Téa Obreht's Masterful 'The Tiger's Wife'

Book Review

Apr. 17, 2011
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Twenty-five-year-old Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife (Random House) has garnered vast praise and landed on best-seller and best new novel lists alike. Much is being said about Obreht's youth—and it is remarkable that such a beautiful, wise piece of literature was penned by one so fresh in her career. Her early cross-cultural experiences surely inform her work; Obreht was born in Belgrade and spent her early years in the Balkans. When she was 7, her family left for Cyprus and Egypt, lands that could only have nurtured Obreht's love for mythology and allegory. In 1997, they immigrated to the United States, where Obreht has since excelled as both a student and writer. Her work has been published widely; she has been named one of the "Best 20 Writers Under 40" by The New Yorker and one of the "Best 5 Writers Under 35" by the National Book Foundation.

It is with a strong mastery of storytelling that Obreht has truly earned her stripes. The Tiger's Wife is richly textured with intersecting themes: the Balkan wars and their effects on new generations in Eastern Europe, the ways myth can displace reason, sense of duty in family and occupation, and the tradition of using allegory to impart life lessons.

The novel follows Natalia, a young doctor, and her friend and colleague Zora, as they make their way through the unnamed, postwar countryside suggestive of the former Yugoslavia. Before they reach their destination, Natalia receives a frantic message from her grandmother—news that her grandfather, a doctor himself, has died after leaving home unexpectedly. "He was going to meet you," her grandmother claims, suspicious that something has been hidden from her, but Natalia knows it could not be true. Torn between returning home to mourn with her family and fulfilling their mission to deliver medicine to an orphanage on the coast, Natalia finds a compromise: She will go to the place where her grandfather died and retrieve his belongings. One item in particular is very valuable to her: his childhood copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, a worn little book she has never seen her grandfather without.

As this new mission takes Natalia on another path, she reflects on stories her grandfather told her. The first is of the deathless man her grandfather encounters several times over his lifetime, a man who cannot die because he made a wager with death and lost. The second story, which she pieces together through recollections and legend, is of an event in her grandfather's childhood in a remote village, a place isolated from the Germans, where it is almost always winter and where the presence of a different enemy—a tiger, freed during the bombing of the nearby City and by now weak and starving—is terrifying the villagers.

A shepherd who goes into the snowy hills to retrieve a lost calf discovers the famished animal, but his claims are met with disbelief. Natalia imagines the scene: "Vladiša was saying: 'The devil I tell you! The devil has come for us all!'...But as my grandfather listened to Vladiša, who was sobbing about orange fur and stripes, it became clearer and clearer to him that this particular thing in the woods was not the devil, and not a devil, but perhaps something else, something he maybe knew a little bit about, and his eyes must have lit up when he said: 'But that's Shere Khan.'"

As the villagers conspire to kill the tiger, certain events lead them to believe that one of their neighbors—a nameless, deaf and mute girl who is a victim of her husband Luka's cruelty—is not on their side. In fact, they discover, she is helping the tiger and putting them all in unknown danger.

Obreht's characters are as memorable as Kipling's allegorical animals; Luka the butcher, Mother Vera, Dariša the Bear, and even the deathless man are not unlike The Jungle Book's Baloo the bear, the old wolf Akela, the panther Bagheera, and Shere Khan himself. The tale of the tiger's wife may have left the largest impression on this reader, but it is only one of many in this novel that unfolds beautifully. The stories her grandfather told her, Natalia realizes in the wake of his death, were meant to help her make sense of the world and become independent. Ultimately, he teaches her that we have the right to withhold our wagers with fate, at a cost.

Obreht's words often tiptoe around the taboo—the villagers' toxic superstition, Luka's brutal violence, and whispers of bestiality—before landing the reader abruptly and excitingly in the middle of a scene. At times, the connections between her grandfather's past and Natalia's present are tenuous, and the modern-day thread feels slightly underdeveloped. However, the vast majority of Obreht's prose is a pleasure to read, and through these stories she reminds us that our destinies are both intertwined and self-determined. The Tiger's Wife is a celebration of storytelling in its most raw and compelling forms, and proof positive that allegory is still a powerful literary tool.

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