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Balkan Dreams

A debut novel hovers among shadows and action.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By JOHN SIMON
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The Tiger’s Wife
A Novel
by Téa Obreht
Random House, 352 pp., $25

Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht

Beowulf Sheehan

This is the latest runaway bestseller among first novels. Much has been made of the fact that Téa Obreht was 24 years old when she finished writing it, that she hailed from the former Yugoslavia, that she was 12 when she came to the United States with her family, that she wrote the novel mostly as a student at Cornell, that the style could best be described as magic realism (though she does not call herself a magic realist), and that she was a woman. And not only a woman but a blonde, and an attractive one.

The novel has mythic qualities—and is by no means the sort of thing attractive young blondes usually write about. The vocabulary is large, the syntax mostly correct and idiomatic, and the prose both exotic and poetic. Obreht declared various influences, the most evident being Gabriel García Márquez, whose Love in the Time of Cholera she pronounces the perfect novel. Respected writers—T.C. Boyle, Colum McCann, and Ann Patchett—showered her book jacket with superlatives.

She has appeared in respected publications: The New York Times Book Review accorded her the rare privilege for a first novel, a front-page review; the New Yorker chose her as the youngest member of a select group, “The Twenty Under Forty,” and published a chapter of The Tiger’s Wife in its pages, something tantamount to literary canonization.

So who is this young woman of mystery? Yes, mystery, for her very name seems fictitious. The acute accent on Téa does not jibe with either Serbian, her native language, or with English, her adopted one. Obreht would appear to be a Slovene name, but why Slovene in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, where she spent her first seven years? It turns out that she has Muslim, Slovene (i.e., Roman Catholic), and Greek Orthodox ancestors. Some time ago Wikipedia accorded her a brief entry, revealing her real surname as something very Slavic and ponderously polysyllabic. Also curious are the two pages of acknowledgments at the end of the The Tiger’s Wife, as provocatively unusual as the book itself.

There is much that is indisputably arresting about Obreht the writer. She is in equal measure talented and annoying. On the positive side are her intense powers of observation of nature, objects, people and their behavior, which she perceives and evokes in minute detail with the eye of a miniaturist painter. Also the frequent, albeit inconsistent, ability to convey things through striking similes and metaphors. On the negative side are pretentiously elucubrated tropes, and problems with the larger picture—fully realizing some characters and finding a proper arc for the story. Thus her structure is often deliberately choppy, with excessive crosscutting or disjunctive fresh starts. Her chapters tend to be like short stories—seem, indeed, to have originated as such. Major characters are introduced a bit too serially even as earlier ones fade too often out of the picture. The never-named country is sometimes Serbia, sometimes not, remaining generic Balkan.

In the novel’s present, the quasi-autobiographical Natalia and her best friend Zóra (again with a preposterous accent mark), two young doctors, travel from what is called the City across borders (corresponding to those between Serbia and Croatia) to inoculate endangered children in some seaside town, but neither then nor later become fully realized characters even though they reappear periodically.

More developed are events in the past, such as Natalia’s close relationship with her distinguished physician grandfather, with whom she, as a child, makes weekly visits to the zoo to check up on their beloved tigers. Grandfather carries in his pocket a well-thumbed copy of Kipling’s Jungle Book, which makes multiple appearances, usually featuring its tiger. This zoo bears marked similarity to the Belgrade Zoo, located in the Kalimegdan, the fortress-park at the confluence of two rivers (in reality, the Danube and Sava).

Of Natalia we learn that she adores her grandfather, who is basically the novel’s protagonist, but possibly because he figures now as an old man, now as a nine-year-old boy, and now in-between, remains in too-uncertain focus. Of more or less equal importance are the tiger and the tiger’s wife. Upon her grandfather’s death Natalia travels to retrieve his possessions since he puzzlingly went off to die in the distant burg of Galina. She, too, will meet the deathless man, a strange character who neither ages nor dies but announces and facilitates the death of others, being, he says, the nephew of Death. His name is Gavran (Serbian for raven) Gailé (of no known language) and he has periodic meetings and weird intercourse with Grandfather.

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