Book review - The Tiger's Wife, By Téa Obreht

Originally published in the Independent on Friday, 25 March 2011

Pub. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99

Téa Obreht's stunning debut novel is all the more remarkable when you realise it was written when she was just 25. Born in 1985 in former Yugoslavia, Obreht covers 60 years of this war-torn region's history through a series of enchanting, surreal tales.

Natalia, a young doctor, is travelling "over the border" to inoculate the children of an orphanage; children "orphaned by our own soldiers". En route, she learns of her grandfather's death, in an unknown town, apparently on his way to meet her.

Natalia's grandfather, also a doctor, beguiled her with stories from his childhood. The most resonant is that of the tiger who escaped from the local zoo after it was bombed by the Germans in 1941. The tiger arrives in her grandfather's village and is befriended by a deaf-mute Muslim girl who becomes known as "The Tiger's Wife".

Another tale involves her grandfather's encounters with "the deathless man", who warns people of their imminent death and guards their souls for 40 days. His claims of immortality result in a wager that is to cost the doctor his most beloved possession, a childhood copy of The Jungle Book. Some of the richest folklore in Europe, including the vampire myth, comes from the Balkans. Obreht capitalises on this and, like a magician, conjures up a host of larger-than-life characters that become the stuff of modern legend: the disappointed butcher who aspires to be a musician, the apothecary with a shady past, and the bear-man with a passion for embalming.

Obreht knits together these stories to create a colourful tapestry that illuminates her native country's recent past. On war and ethnic cleansing, she is incredibly astute: "When your fight has purpose – to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent – it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unravelling – when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event – there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it..."

The book is about the rituals of love and hate and how life and death stalk each other. Obreht highlights the superstitions and stories we concoct to free us from our fears: "When confounded by the extremes of life – whether good or bad – people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening." Beautifully executed, haunting and lyrical, The Tiger's Wife is an ambitious novel that succeeds on all counts. It's a book you will want to read again and again.