It seems like you can’t go anywhere these days without brushing up against a tiger.
With the arrival of spring, we have talk on TV of whether or not golfer Tiger Woods can reclaim his glory.
And everywhere you turn there’s Charlie Sheen raving about his amazing “tiger blood.”
So why shouldn’t the literary world follow suit?
“Are you reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?” my mother asks me via email.
“Not quite ready for that one,” I respond.
“How’s Tiger, Tiger?” my best friend Abby wants to know, having caught a glimpse of the book I’m reading.
“Wrong one,” I tell her.
I was reading The Tiger’s Wife, an exquisitely beautiful debut novel by twenty-five-year-old Tea Obreht.
In truth, I came to this book reluctantly, and started reading it primarily because of the heavy buzz created by Obreht’s inclusion in The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” fiction issue.
And this reluctance comes from only one source: pure, green-eyed envy. I mean, she’s only 25 years old!
But, of course, there’s no waiting for real talent, and that’s what this young author has in spades. In The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht lays an incredible foundation to support her multi-generational novel-slash-fable in which the protagonist–young doctor Natalia Stefanovi–works her way up the coastline of an unnamed Balkan country after a war, heading to a children’s orphanage. While on her journey, she receives word that her grandfather, also a physician, has mysteriously passed away, and it is now up to Natalia to retrieve his personal items and to get to the root of his death. Her investigation includes speculation of the grandfather’s search for “the deathless man”–a bewitching figure who had dominated Natalia’s childhood stories–as well as studying clues that reveal the reason for the continuous presence of The Jungle Book among her grandfather possessions, and the question of who exactly was the mysterious “tiger’s wife,” a deaf-mute woman befriended by an escaped tiger.
Obreht’s chapters seamlessly dart between time and place, covering Natalia’s years as a child in a remote village in the mountains during the war, while also introducing us to gorgeous characters seemingly drawn from another time and place who linger on in the memory: Darisa the Bear, The Apothecary, Luka the Butcher, Amana the Gusla player. Not only are Obreht’s characters rich with originality (the last time I have come across characters that entertained me so thoroughly was in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians), but also her prose is equally stylish and distinct.
While I don’t have the pleasure of knowing the author, I will end with one personal anecdote about The Tiger’s Wife. Many years ago, during one ridiculously hot summer in New York where my dear friends Melanie and Lily and I shared a New York University dorm (surviving on spaghetti dinners and overpriced coffee from Dean & Deluca), I routinely (and accidentally) received mail intended for a man with the same last name as me. Returning his mail to him led to our eventual friendship, which continued throughout the years as we both ended up working in the wondrous world of publishing. This very same man would end up being the person to discover Tea Obreht’s book and would become her agent.
Nearly ten years (!) after we first met in NYU’s mailroom, I am delighted to say congrats to them both on a book I am beyond eager to share with others.
Today’s WHAT WE’RE READING is brought to you by Megan Fishmann–Algonquin publicist and high heel connoisseur.