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Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife

In the middle of last year Téa Obreht enjoyed a brief moment of celebrity after she was chosen as one of The New Yorker’s ‘20 Under 40’, along with such writers as Wells Tower, Gary Shteyngart and Yiyun Li.

Whether such lists say more about real achievement than literary fashion is debatable. But by the same token there’s no doubt Obreht’s inclusion on the list signalled a real excitement about her potential. Not just because at only 25 she was the youngest of the 20 by more than half a decade, but because the honour came on the back of a mere handful of published stories, and the whiff of a novel due out this year.

That novel, The Tiger’s Wife, has now arrived, and whether it establishes Obreht as the most thrilling writer of her generation (as the publisher’s hype would have us believe) or not, there’s little doubt it’s a strikingly accomplished and sophisticated debut, distinguished by both a rare facility for language and extreme poise and self-possession.

Set in an unnamed Balkan country, in the still-raw aftermath of a brutal civil war, it focuses on a young doctor, Natalia, and the mysteries of her family’s past.

The novel begins with a phone call, alerting Natalia to the death of her grandfather. For Natalia the news is sad, but not wholly unexpected: unlike her grandmother she was aware of her grandfather’s failing health. But what is unexpected is the fact he did not die at home, but in a small town near the border, alone.

Attempting to unravel the mystery of her grandfather’s death, Natalia finds herself stepping back into his past, a past that includes not just the violence of two wars, but a pair of fantastical encounters, one with a tiger, escaped from the zoo during the chaos of World War 2 and the deaf-mute woman who befriended it, the other with Gavo, a man cursed to eternal life by his uncle, Death.

It’s tempting to suggest the manner in which The Tiger’s Wife weaves these fairy-tale elements into a wholly realistic portrait of a country traumatised by war owes at least a little to Obreht’s family history: born in Belgrade, her family fled the former Yugoslavia in 1992 when the war began, spending time in both Cyprus and Egypt before finally settling in the United States in 1997. Yet I suspect it is a temptation that should be resisted, if only because there is something slightly condescending about conflating the two, a sense in which it pigeonholes Obreht as little more than the product of her family history, rather than the highly sophisticated writer she clearly is.

But by the same token there’s little doubt that with its elusive tigers and Deathless Men, The Tiger’s Wife quite clearly inhabits the magical realist tradition that held sway through the 1980s. It is impossible not to hear echoes of Marquez and Rushdie, as well as hints of other, less familiar writers from within the old Eastern Bloc, and an array of sources drawing upon the folk tales and traditions of Southern Europe.

Nor are The Tiger’s Wife’s influences all so explicitly literary. Certainly it’s difficult to read the account of Natalia’s grandfather’s encounters with the deathless man and not be aware of the echoes of Neil Gaiman, if only because of the rhythms of the prose, their slightly mannered invocation of the formalities of storytelling.

At one level this fluid incorporation of influences is one of the pleasures of The Tiger’s Wife. For despite both the shadow of violence and war that hangs over it and its often unsettling depictions of the manner in which conflict corrupts both societies and individuals, it is ultimately a novel fascinated by a series of questions about the ways we remember the past, and, more importantly, the complex interplay between imagination and belief, fiction and reality.

These are questions that have been explored many times before, especially in fiction of a magic realist bent, often to little real effect. It is a mark of Obreht’s talent that in The Tiger’s Wifethey are made urgent again, not just as abstract observations, or literary games, but as part of a larger exploration of the way stories tell us as much as we tell them, and of the silences that linger in even the most familiar of them. For as the novel reminds us, stories are subtle, and unreliable creations, capable of taking upon different shapes for different audiences. What is true is seldom clear or settled, and even if the truth can be found, its real import is likely to be elusive.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 April 2011.

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