Grandfather recently died. He died alone on a trip away from home in a town where no one expected him to be. Tea Obreht opens her novel with her protagonist, Natalie, searching to escort her grandfather’s soul home during those 40 days after the spirit passes from the body. Her grandmother is shocked by his death; then angered because they’d already lost several days as his spirit roamed across the border. Grandmother sends Natalie on a mission to retrieve his few worldly possessions, and to reconcile his passing. He’d told her grandmother he was on his way to assist Natalie on a mercy medical mission to an orphanage. The two of them had conspired to keep his terminal illness from Grandmother. A well-known physician himself, he had to know he was too sick to travel. Natalie feels compelled to unravel the mystery of why he set off for a ramshackle settlement of no apparent significance and meet his maker. Family secrets, loss, love, and living against the backdrop of the Balkans.
The red grapes on the vine beckon. But all the people Natalie discovers in the hills, where she is inoculating infants and young children who are up for adoption, are searching for a corpse whose spirits they blame for all that’s gone wrong. When the dead are not allowed in their 40 days to find peace, their spirits haunt the living and the land.
The relationship between the narrator, Natalie, and her grandfather is grounded in her early childhood experiences with him at the Zoo and the stories he told. Grandfather always carried a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book Stories in his pocket. Natalie heard him read these tales. She also heard his original stories about a deathless man, a deaf-mute Muslim woman married to a butcher, and a tiger tamed by her silence through gifts of meat. What stories he based on his own experiences in WWII, what was embellishment to truth, and what was fiction no one would ever know. They were true to him. The fantastical family myths and legends make this a page turner. It’s also what makes the story memorable. You won’t be able to get it out of your head.
I finished reading this book more than a month ago. I read it rapaciously for the beauty of its language and distinctive voice. I didn’t want it to end, and I am still not sure the ending satisfies me fully as a reader. I still have questions. I keep reflecting on this novel in ways that I did about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The story conveys a sense of time and place, the passage of time in one place, and the impact of this passage on both life and death.
The episodes involving Natalie’s grandfather’s face-to-face encounters with the deathless man offer a horror story of extraordinary literary quality; Poe would blush. And her fiction is poetic. But this barter between a man who defied death many times over and the grandfather is the uberplot and the resolution to the mystery of his death. When grandfather was still young, he bet the deathless man that no one can evade this certainty of a limited lifetime, and the stake grandfather put up was his edition of Kipling, which was noticeably absent from his possessions when Natalie arrived to collect his final story.
The storytelling treats time and place with ambivalence and vaguery. Initially I didn’t like this blurriness as to when and where things took place. Yet Obreht used it to full effect. I keep thinking about it. Could’ve been anywhere over there back when.
It is in vagaries that universal themes are found in Obreht’s Tiger’s Wife—much in the same way that Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, and Amy Tan weave fantastical family stories to provide a lattice for magical realism. What are memory, story, myth, legend, truth, and meaning? Only in the telling does the significance of Obreht’s novel become clearer, and only over time spent AFTER reading. This is what I think makes it real literature, not just current fiction.
Did I mention Tea Obrecht is an Ithaca author? This town has real writing talent. And Ithaca is on a roll in recent years with bestselling fiction and non-fiction authors making our community home.
Tea was born in Belgrade and has lived in the U.S. since age 12. The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s have published Tea’swork. The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best American fiction writers under 40 and she was includd on the National Book Foundation list of 5 under 35. She won the Orange Prize for Fiction in the UK as the youngest recipient ever of this award for excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing internationally.