If you are the sort of person given over to violently bitter resentment at the fame and success of precocious upstarts far younger than yourself (we’ll refrain from confessing whether we are such people), then consider the evidence that you should harbor a towering hatred of Téa Obreht:
- At 24 years of age, she was named to the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list. This was before she had officially published a book.
- At 25, she published The Tiger’s Wife.
- The Tiger’s Wife has received universally praiseworthy reviews (“the sort of reviews that many writers wait an entire career for,” as the New York Times put it), including the cover of the New York Times Book Review.
- Oh yeah, she also made the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your persuasion), Obreht is deserving of every accolade thrown at her, because The Tiger’s Wife is as good as advertised. The novel is told with such skill and imagination that any deep-seated envy we harbored melted over the course of it.
Set in the war-torn Balkans, The Tiger’s Wife moves between multiple storylines and characters, central among them the narrator Natalia and her deceased grandfather, both physicians; a “deathless man” who haunts the narrative with his cheerful inability to die; and a tiger and the deaf-mute woman who shares an uncommon bond with it. The novel evokes the rhythms and language of an elaborate folk tale. Everything in the book — not just the people but the animals and the ravaged landscape itself — has a story to tell, and Obreht’s balance between myth and fact, superstition and reason, is consummate. She was won comparisons to living writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie; dead ones like Isak Dinesen and Rudyard Kipling; and fans such as Colum McCann and T.C. Boyle.
Listening to her grandfather’s stories, Natalia assumes they are mythical like the ones he reads to her from The Jungle Book, a copy of which he carries with him everywhere. After she herself has become a doctor, Natalia crosses the new border of civil conflict on a mission to inoculate orphans, and her experience with a cursed family digging holes on the property of Natalia’s hosts begins to chip away at her much-prized skepticism and rationality. In the course of tracing the unusual circumstances of her grandfather’s death (“Dying makes people do strange things,” a character tells her; “you know how they sometimes go off, like animals do when they’re going to die”), Natalia discovers that the stories he told her growing up — the ones about the deathless man, the tiger and the tiger’s wife — were not myth but were in fact true. The Tiger’s Wife is, above all else, a family saga, the story of those people who came before us and how their stories shape our own.
Obreht was born in Belgrade but moved when she was seven. Her grandfather was not a doctor but an aviation engineer. He was a storyteller, though not quite like the grandfather in the novel. Says Obreht,
That was part of his culture … When someone tells you a story, it’s a project. There’s a complex, deep undercurrent of vendettas and interesting narratives underlying even anything as simple as saying, ‘I went out to get milk.’
Obreht and her mother emigrated to the United States when she was a teenager, and she has lived here since. This is what makes her novel all the more remarkable: it has the feel of lived-in personal experience yet was conjured almost completely through imagination. You can curse how preternaturally gifted someone like Téa Obreht is, to have written at her age a book of such power and immediacy. Or you can celebrate it, and be grateful writers like her exist, to share their gifts and keep us waiting, expectantly, for what they will do next.