Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, draws on unexpected strengths. Like her heroine, a young doctor named Natalia, Obreht seems possessed of a supple courage. She is not afraid to grasp big topics: the war in Yugoslavia, religious, cultural, and national divisions, the conflict between old and new ways of seeing the world, the ties of family and the undoing of families. Most of all, this is a book unafraid to deal head-on with the challenge of writing about death, who is less a theme than an off stage character. In the heavier hands of another writer, these topics would be deadening. But Obreht’s fragility does not just come from the little things and the sense of felt experiences that make her scenes real and tender, like the tiles on the floor of a bathroom abandoned during the war, smashed up so that the goats kept there by passing soldiers won’t slip; it also comes from a more unexpected support.
Obreht draws wisely on Balkan folklore, traditions about life after death, restless spirits, and even vampires. Her writing speaks of familiarity with the gusla-playing epic singers made famous by the research into oral art conducted by Albert Lord and Milman Parry at Harvard, and her characters are tethered in traditional cultural forms, folk medicine and what she frequently calls “superstition.” These details drawn from a fading world of folk tradition are woven into the story with care, not put on display. Even if the attitude Obreht takes towards supernatural and proto-medical beliefs, in particular, cannot help but be colored by modern incredulity, her interest in traditional foods and music reveal a deep affection for the old ways.
Obreht’s love of stories shows just how gripping this attention to vernacular culture can be. After all, it can be risky to use well-known and widely transmitted stories to write about a subject like death. If both the materials and the theme lack freshness, this kind of writing can become filled with empty metaphors or callous parody. Take the example of the deathless man, whose story runs through the book alongside the story of the tiger’s wife and the main thread about a young doctor. As the doctor tells it, the deathless man received a present from his uncle Death: the ability to tell who is about to die and who has many years yet to live. He took advantage of his talent to forge a reputation as an infallible doctor.
This story is an old one, well-known in many different cultures. In a shorter and simpler version, it appeared as “Godfather Death” in the Grimms’ collection of magical tales. But Obreht’s version is a little bit different. As the deathless man tells his story he is interrupted by his audience:
“I think I’ve heard this kind of story before.”
“Not like this you haven’t,” he says to me cheerfully. “This time it’s true. This time, I am telling it.”
It’s hardly surprising that Obreht’s point of reference throughout is Rudyard Kipling. A shared interest in the vitality of myth unites their work. Like the best of Kipling’s stories, The Tiger’s Wife makes use of plots that border on the archetypal then infuses them with intimate and personal truths, suspense, and import. A sense of ownership pervades the novel Obreht has given us. It is a complicated and easily confused set of intertwined narratives, but she handles them firmly.
Her readers benefit from this steady confidence, which also lies behind the solid outlines of her characters. There are strong women, like the two young, self-consciously modern doctors at the center of the narrative, who are contrasted with the isolated mid-wife living in a backward village, and the deaf-mute Muslim girl, horrendously abused by her husband, who becomes known as the tiger’s wife. There are also complicated men, most obviously the narrator’s grandfather, who is an absent audience for the heroine’s story, as well as a figure of authority who delivers many of the novel’s narratives. The subplots about the deathless man and the tiger’s wife are stories he tells about the strange people he has known, but they reveal as much about the man he has become as they do about their mysterious protagonists. These stories show us the frightened boy and the arrogant young doctor, both of whom still reside in the wise, self-assured old man.
Obreht works with the energy of the oral anecdote. Like private stories told in intimate, face-to-face situations, characters tell narratives that combine humor with urgency. The heroine, for instance, remembers a teacher determined to give her students a practical lesson in anatomy. The teacher is forced to smuggle a lung into the school and then take it onto the roof, where the students battle the sunshine to dissect the organ:
Then the lung slipped out of her hands and slid across the aluminum foil and over the edge of the table, onto the ground. It lay there, heavy and definite. M. Dobravka looked down at it for a few moments, while the flies immediately found it and began to walk gingerly along the tracheal opening. Then she bent down, picked it up, and dropped it back on the newspaper.
“You,” she said to me, because I happened to be standing next to her. “Get a straw out of the coffee cabinet and come back here and inflate this lung. Come on, hurry up.”
After that, M. Dobravka was a figure of reverence, particularly for me.
It can be almost disappointing to reach the end of the chapter and realize the focus has shifted back to a different thread.
Obreht’s readers should be grateful for her interest in storytelling. Like the young doctor and her grandfather, Obreht knows when to disclose and when to hold back; she knows that some stories are private, “moments you keep to yourself.” By sharing them in this novel, she combines the strengths of a novelist with those of a folklorist: A folklorist understands the paradoxical staying power of the old ways, the fact that they always seem to be disappearing, yet somehow remain relevant. A novelist can show how this works, by telling the old stories in new ways.
In Obreht’s novel, the strange stories of men who can’t be killed, strange and foreign animals, and the restless dead are all responses to a situation of such overwhelming brutality that it can be hard to comprehend. These stories express the longings, fears, and joys of the people who lived through these changes. Instead of talking about the atrocities committed by soldiers or the task of post-war reconstruction, a little bit of mystery is sometimes all that people need to keep their grip on hope. This is why, tinged as the book is with magical realism, it still reads like truth. You haven’t heard it like this before, because this time Téa Obreht is telling it.