Random House: 338 pp., $25
Here's what I like about Téa Obreht's debut novel, "The Tiger's Wife": Obreht can write. She can put a sentence together, inhabit characters with lives far different than hers; she can trace the horrors of a war she's never seen. All that is essential, for "The Tiger's Wife" is, after a fashion, a war novel — it takes place after the collapse of communism in an unnamed Eastern European country that has suffered a bloody civil war. "You'd think that, after the war, they would have had enough real skulls to go around," the narrator, a young doctor named Natalia Stefanovic, tells us about the rigors of her medical training; "but they were bullet-riddled skulls, or skulls that needed to be buried so they could wait underground to be dug up, washed, buried again by their loved ones."
Carolyn Kellogg's The Writer's Life: Téa Obreht and "The Tiger's Wife."
The skulls to which Natalia refers are actual skulls, but they are also metaphorical, for "The Tiger's Wife" is a metaphorical work. Woven into the main narrative — which has to do with the death of Natalia's grandfather, an old doctor with whom she was close, and with Natalia's efforts to bring medicine to children on the other side of the border — are a pair of (what else to call them?) fairy tales her grandfather liked to tell her, one about a woman in his home village who became the wife of a tiger, the other about a man who wouldn't die. What these stories represent is mystery, the unanswered questions that, even in a rational universe, exist at the center of the world.
This is truer still in Natalia's country, a land sundered by old blood feuds, by superstitions and ancient rites. Early in the novel, Obreht offers an account of "the forty days of the soul," the period just after death when the spirit "make[s] its way to the places of its past — the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else." Natalia is not a believer but her grandmother is, and in the balance between these world views, Obreht seeks to make her book.
And yet as "The Tiger's Wife" progresses, its sense of balance begins to be a problem, pushing us out of the narrative, or narratives, at the very point we want to be drawn in. Partly, this has to do with momentum, which is difficult to sustain in a novel with three main threads that overlap at regular intervals. The complexity of structure is also a testament to Obreht's skills, her ability to move from one story to another, but after a while we begin to want less acuity and more of the tumult of the world.
Obreht, after all, is writing about chaos: a land where people are targeted because of their names or accents, where zoo animals escape and roam the countryside or devour their own limbs out of stress from the bombs. One of her most acute points is that it has always been thus, that from the tribal past through the age of empire and into the post-imperial present, conflict is the order of the day. "This war never ends," Natalia's grandfather despairs. "It was there when I was a child and it will be here for my children's children." Still, for all that he is right, it is difficult for us to feel it fully when, as soon as we have immersed in such a moment, we are pulled away.
Perhaps the real issue is that, of all the stories here, the most vivid is that of Natalia and her grandfather — not just their relationship but what they have experienced. In a very real sense, they are connected, trying to bring light (compassion, medical treatment) to a country shrouded in darkness. On her relief mission, Natalia meets a family digging in a vineyard for the bones of a cousin; his displacement, it is said, is making their children sick. Whether this is true, she comes to understand, is beside the point; what's important is the level of their credulity.
Her grandfather too has come to recognize this, having seen things he can't explain. "You must understand," he tells Natalia after they witness an elephant wandering the streets of their city, "this is one of those moments.... One of those moments you keep to yourself.... You have to think carefully about where you tell it and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?" That's a key scene in "The Tiger's Wife," for shortly afterward, he recalls for her the deathless man. But I keep thinking about it as a countereffect, a counter-meaning, in which Obreht raises the stakes by suggesting that not all stories are meant to be told.
This is the conundrum of the novel, any novel: between telling and withholding, between sharing and keeping back. Fiction is as much an art of omission as it is one of commission, and in "The Tiger's Wife," Obreht commits too much. She places stories in the foreground — of the deathless man, and of the tiger's wife — that might have been better left in the background while in the process pulling our attention from the one, that of Natalia and her grandfather, that truly resonates. Writing, again, beautiful writing, but in the end, "The Tiger's Wife" might have benefited from a little less art and a little more life.