The Tiger's Wife. Later, Obreht drives home that notion of the intersection of superstition and fact, of the overlap of legend, history and memories: "He learned too that when confounded by the extremes of life — whether good or bad — people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.” But unfortunately, this novel as a whole has a stitched-together feel as Obreht crosses back and forth between past and present, between legend and real-time story. And while the idea of the gray area between legend and reality is interesting, the story itself isn't.
Let's take a look: The story takes place in an unnamed country soon after the conclusion of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Natalia has traveled to a remote Balkan village to bring medicine to an orphanage. On the way, she learns that her grandfather, with whom she was very close, has died. Mysteriously, he had wandered off to a village Natalia has never heard of, leaving no explanation for his wife, daughter, or granddaughter.
Natalia, who narrates the story, reminisces about the two stories, or legends, her grandfather had told her as she's grown up, which, by remembering (and telling readers), she hopes might provide clues to the circumstances surrounding her grandfather's death. One is about a tiger that escaped from a zoo and lurked near the village in which her grandfather grew up during Wold War II. Another is about a deathless man her grandfather, who is also a doctor, has encountered three different times at various stages in his life.
As these legends unfold, the questions for the reader become: How real is either? Could these two seemingly unrelated legends really provide clues to why Natalia's rational grandfather would've done something so irrational and inexplicable as go off to die without telling anyone where or why?
Obreht skips back and forth between the present and these two legends, building on each by introducing new characters and circumstances. Obreht writes beautifully, with drama, atmosphere and extraordinary sharpness. Her spot as the youngest of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 is well deserved.
But the problem with this novel for me is that as clear and sharp as her prose is, the story itself is just as dull. The three strains of story never really live up to the original intrigue of the mystery behind Natalia's grandfather's death. As Obreht continues to build upon the legends, the initial immediacy of the mystery is lost. In addition, the individual strains of story have no real edge to them; for lack of a better word, the novel is just a bit bland. While lovely, Obreht's colorful prose tends to bleach the stories themselves because the mood is so dreamlike and surreal — an effect of the fact that we're always wondering the degree to which grandfather's stories are real personal history, allegories or just cute superstition-infused legends.
Obreht is an unequivocally talented writer, and no doubt other readers will get along with this novel better than I did. But this novel just didn't land for me. It reminded me a little of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, a Booker-prize winning novel that many people loved, but of which I also wasn't a huge fan.