The two most charming things about Téa Obreht’s assured debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, a captivating mix of real life and the delightfully fantastical set in what was once Yugoslavia, are revealed almost immediately by the evocative, descriptively-rich opening paragraph:
“In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park. Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open in his knee all afternoon while he recites the passages to me. Even though my grandfather is not wearing his stethoscope or white coat, the lady at the ticket counter in the entrance shed calls him “Doctor.”
We have barely met Natalia, and have not even learnt her name, but already we are aware of the great love she holds for her grandfather, a man of great learning, who is devoted to his patients and defined by his love for his beloved wife, daughter and, of course, his fellow tiger-centric granddaughter.
It is this enduring affection, tested thought it is at times by the usual ambivalence-laden rites of passage such as teenage years and the early twenties, for the man from Galina, friend of the mysterious Deathless Man and protector of the titular Tiger’s Wife, who remains nameless throughout, that is the focal point of this extraordinary tale.
A tale told, and this is the second delightful element of the book that does not diminish in its poetic charm or sensory richness for even a paragraph, with vivid detail, and a palpable love of the written word.
Every descriptive passage leaps off the page, cliched though this might sound, drawing you into each of the chapters, which move between the present day, the past, and stories that sound allegorical at first but are firmly rooted in the history of her grandfather’s home village, such that you feel as if you are part of the story rather than merely witnesses to it.
So powerfully does Obrecht describe every last facet of a scene that you could almost reach and touch the things she is describing, each and every person springing to life as if they are living, breathing and speaking right in front of you.
This should be a standard feature of any book of course but few authors manage Obrecht’s depth and breadth of vivacity of description, her ability to conjure up people, events and places long past, as if they exist still in all their colourful, and often destructive glory.
It is an impressive achievement for any author but particularly one who has just released her first novel, and speaks of the talent that underlies every welcome word in the book’s far too short page count.
So adept is she at spinning her tale that the shifts between her childhood, her adulthood, and the events of her grandfather’s childhood and beyond, all of which reflect an almost mystical shift between the real and the imagined, and the embroidered sweeping together of the two, don’t jar but rather flow seamlessly, and seductively together.
Even more beguiling is the fact that she is able to take tales rooted in the dislocation of war – post-World War 1, the Second World War, and the Balkans conflict of relatively recent memory, and infuse them with meaning and life where you would suppose precious little to be.
But one of the main themes of The Tiger’s Wife is that life will out regardless of circumstance, that it will refuse to be curtailed no matter the hatreds, superstitions or obstacles that surround it, and that there are moments of pure magic and transcendence in places we may not necessarily think to first look.
Natalia, who also becomes a doctor, discovers this repeatedly as she comes to realise that there is value and truth in the stories her grandfather told her, that they are not merely tales spun to amuse or inform her, but rather reflections of the undercurrents always present in Balkans society whether in the all too frequent times of war, or the intermittent times of peace.
A modern woman, who prefers the avant garde and the progressive to the hackneyed and traditional, she comes to realise that these stories have worth beyond their tales of larger than life characters like Luka, the village butcher of Galina, his mute wife who forms an unusual bond with the escaped tiger from Belgrade Zoo that wanders the hills above the village, and the Deathless Man, who her grandfather comes across again and again.
They are, in fact, a distillation of the things that define the society that Natalia lives in, its distinctive pulse and flavour, its sense of being, for better or worse.
It’s something she discovers when she begins to make stories of her own whether its coming across a family in Brejevina, blighted by sickness, who are digging everywhere to find the body of a lost and un-sanctified loved one whose recovery, they believe, will heal them, or watching in hushed awe one night with her grandfather as an elephant is walked under cover of darkness to the city’s zoo.
She comes to appreciate too that these stories are precious and shouldn’t be told to just anyone, lest they lose their potency, as her grandfather reminds her when she exclaims that no one will ever believe she saw an elephant wandering the streets:
“… 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?”
You get a sense as you read the luminously-written prose that Obrecht, who was born in the Balkans but left at the age of 7, has learnt this lesson well, drawing on her heritage and powerful imagination to bring her own tales to life.
We should be thankful indeed that she chose to share them with as wide an audience as possible, one that will no doubt grow as The Tiger’s Wife comes to be regarded as the classic book it undoubtedly is.