Amid the war-scarred landscape of a fictionalized Balkan country, a young doctor, Natalia, faces superstition and secrecy on a humanitarian trip to an orphanage across the border. At the same time, she searches for the truth of her grandfather's mysterious final days and his solitary death in a small country village. In Eastern Orthodox tradition, we learn, “the forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death.” During that time, it will “make its way to the places of its past.” Natalia must return home with her grandfather's personal effects before those forty days pass so that his soul can find it's way.
That is the basis for the finely-crafted mix of history and legend, reality and allegory that is The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. This debut novel, by the youngest writer on The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 list of 2010, emerges from a barrage of prepublication fervor as that rare literary gem: deserving of all the hype.
With extraordinary skill and imagination, Obreht slowly illuminates the grandfather's life through the re-telling of "the deathless man" and "the tiger's wife," two of his own fantastic tales. “These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories” of his life. Subtly, each bit of myth and memory builds on the next to reveal the character of both the man and the land he comes from.
This novel is not a light read. Its richness and complexity awes, and we are left with the understanding that who we believe our loved ones to be is powerfully influenced by the stories they tell. And in turn, the stories lived out by everyday people define their homeland more truly than any boundary drawn on a map.