'The Tiger's Wife': A Mix of Grit and Fantasy

This much-acclaimed novel takes a few turns into magical realism.

At the tender age of 26, Tea Obreht has published one of the biggest novels of the past year to great acclaim, although the book's fantastical elements will appeal to some readers more than others.

Obreht, who was born in the former Yugoslavia but moved to the United States when she was 12, has already been named as a 2011 National Book Award finalist and winner of the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. "The Tiger's Wife" was also the first selection of the all-new Huffington Post Book Club, where reader discussions will continue until the end of January. Pretty impressive for someone not even within sneezing distance of 30.

The truly remarkable achievement of "The Tiger's Wife" is its complexity. Obreht weaves the story of a young doctor named Natalia strugging against ignorance in the Balkan countryside with two other threads that relate to Natalia's grandfather. One is about her grandfather's experiences with an escaped tiger in his youth, and the other is the tale of a "deathless man" whom her grandfather meets several times over the course of his long life.

Obreht describes the young doctor's experiences with inoculating children in gritty detail, but never misses an opportunity to wax poetic, such as in this description of her temporary quarters: "The place looked leftover, but not defeated. There was something determined about the way the blue paint clung to the shutters and the door and the broken crate full of lavender that was leaning against the side of the house."

When Obreht moves into the story of the tiger and his "wife," she effortlessly switches voices, as Natalia's grandfather recalls his childhood experiences with a deaf mute girl who has a mystical relationship with the escaped tiger. In other sections, Natalia's grandfather tells her the story of his periodic encounters with a man who cannot die.

"It is hard to believe that a man who has just been pulled out of a coffin where he has spent several days can look anything short of exuberant," the grandfather says. "But that's the extraordinary thing, he just looks very pleased, sitting there, with his hands in his lap."

The stories all refer to the tragedy of war, in both literal and allegorical ways, and the animals are representative of human struggles as well. I would highly recommend "The Tiger's Wife" for book clubs that enjoy a challenging story and for readers who don't mind a little magic mixed in with the usual death and drama.


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