Reviewed by Rima Walker
Open this book and you will find yourself plunged into a world of reality and myth making, side by side, that Obrecht skillfully weaves together with her great narrative ability and imagination. Tea Obrecht is a young woman (25 when she wrote the book) who came to America from the then country of Yugoslavia when she was twelve. The mythical country she writes of is not where she was born but might as well have been. She experienced life in the Balkans mainly through her family and friends and yet writes about its sad history of war as though she lived through it herself.
All through the book, I was astonished by her mature and brilliant writing and her deft ability to relate the series of almost dream sequence tales she uses to shed light on the mystery her protagonist, Natalia Stefanovic, tries to hunt down concerning the death of her much loved grandfather. This structure and the fantasy aspects of her storytelling reminded me of the magic realism of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a little bit of the traditional Jewish writers, Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Her narrative is the framework for a series of stories—fantasy and supernatural stories—that, in a sense, are like the Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairy tales we grew up with, and, like the authors cited above, they are told realistically and in a matter-of-fact fashion. The author’s ability to relate these stories as though the incidents in them are real is so fine that I found myself believing that they are true, reflecting on the character of the grandfather; on the eternal truths of love and hate; and how people try to cope with the terror of war frequently through the rituals of superstition.
To me, Natalia, the narrator, is not the main character. Her grandfather is. All the “fairy tales” the author relates reflect on him from the time he was a child. When Natalia was young, her physician grandfather regularly took her to the zoo to see the tigers that enthralled them both. He always carried with him a copy of The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling, in which one of the animals is a tiger named Shere Khan. In one of the first stories, we learn that during WWII a tiger escaped from the zoo after it was bombed, and that tiger is most definitely a main character in the book since almost all of the stories include him. Late in the book, a very abusive husband married to a deaf mute disappears. The villagers believe she killed him and that she became the tiger’s wife by feeding and ministering to him as he grows more helpless and hungry in the woods. Many times the grandfather, as a young boy, witnessed her catering to the tiger.
If the stories of the tiger and his wife represent love and fear in the face of things not understood, then the other stories are about death and random chance that reminded me strongly of Ingmar Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal in which Death plays chess with the Knight for his body and soul. Gavran Gaile is the deathless man punished with a curse that prevents him from dying. He travels all over, and Natalia’s grandfather has encounters with him and his coffee cup whose dregs tell him who would live and who would die. The grandfather meets him again when the country is about to undergo the horrors of war. Gavran says that there is going to be “a lot of suddenness,” referring to those who would die randomly in the war and from epidemics that follow in its footsteps.
All of the stories are populated by the most fascinating people: an apothecary, Luka the butcher who beats his wife, Mother Vera, Darisa the bear hunter, and others all of whom influence the grandfather in some way, and most of whom are figures of myth and legend.
I cannot help wondering where Obrecht can go from here. After winning prizes for her short fiction published in excellent magazines, she has so outdone herself with this first novel that I can’t imagine anything better from her. How can she live up to writing a book finer than The Tiger’s Wife? I sincerely hope she can, and I know I will read everything she writes.~