The Tiger's Wife, By Téa Obreht

How the debut novelist got her stripes
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The Independent Culture

To be named on the New Yorker's list of Top 20 Writers under 40 and the Waterstone's 11, a list of best debut authors, must bring a burden of expectation along with the privilege.

But 25-year-old Téa Obreht wears both well. Her debut, The Tiger's Wife, is assured, eloquent and not easily forgotten.

The story is told by Natalia, a young medic who is on her way to administer vaccines at an orphanage in a town by the sea, somewhere in the Balkans, when she receives the news that her grandfather, also a doctor, has died suddenly and mysteriously in a clinic far from home. And so begins a journey to find the reason for his death in a strange place. To do so, Natalia retraces his life through the stories he told her, and from his prized possession: a dog-eared copy of The Jungle Book that he carried with him.

There are two stories that dominate, and Natalia dips in and out of them both. The first is from her grandfather's childhood, when – his imagination already seized by wild cats from the Kipling book he had been given as a child – a tiger that had escaped from its zoo came to prowl and haunt the village in which he grew up.

The second story is that of the "the deathless man", one cursed to live regardless of what horrors are inflicted on his body. He reappears throughout the grandfather's life, taunting the medical science he sets such store by.

Although set in the Balkans, the novel does not let details of the region's troubled history intrude. Obreht strips the terrain of its real identity; war is just a backdrop, religions barely identified. It is the tiger, the deathless man, and the inquisitive doctor who lead the story through its layers of modern-day reality, magical realism, and folklore. Together, they all dance around one theme, that of death – or rather, how death needs to be decorated by stories for it to be accepted.

There are two minor criticisms of The Tiger's Wife. At times, the seams between these concurrent stories do not meet perfectly, and though her pacing in the book is delicious – Obreht has the storyteller's gift for suspense, and holds back details until the reader can wait no more – the ending rears up too fast. Otherwise, Obreht can rest easy: she has lived up to the early hype.

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