A young doctor in a war-torn country recalls her grandfather's folk tales.
"O! My God! Behold the wonderment!" a parrot cries in the early pages of Téa Obreht's debut novel, "The Tiger's Wife." Actually, wonderment is in short supply where the bird is kept.
Though the book's war-torn setting is never named, it closely resembles the former Yugoslavia, where Obreht was born and which has suffered years of ethnic strife. Natalia, the novel's narrator, is a young doctor helping to pick up the pieces, but the story's spirit is closer to the parrot's cry -- suffused with a strangeness and seriocomic tone that transcends war and struggle.
As the book opens, Natalia has learned that her beloved grandfather has died, and as she tends to an orphanage's children and tries to recover his possessions she recalls the folk tales he told her growing up. One involves a "deathless man" he met throughout his life, shot in the head yet alert and chatty. Another involves the tiger's wife of the title -- a young deaf-mute woman who was viciously abused by her husband, Luka, and seen by the townspeople as having an uncanny connection with a tiger escaped from a zoo. "The tiger is her husband," one resident whispers. "He comes into her house each night and takes off his skin."
Across the novel, stories about the deathless man and the tiger's wife accrue a magical-realism quality that evokes Gabriel García Marquez. And Obreht's sentences sometimes strive toward the Faulknerian: "[The tiger's wife's] presence in town, smiling, bruiseless, suddenly suggested an exciting and irrevocable possibility for what had happened to Luka, a possibility the people of Galina would cling to even seventy years after her death," she writes.
Obreht aspires to erase our compulsion to commemorate war through old gestures of gritty realism or melodrama. Here metaphor will carry the day, as colorful and sturdy as the copy of "The Jungle Book" Natalia's grandfather always kept in his coat pocket.
This is ultimately a book about war, though, and Obreht's artful menagerie carries only so much gravitas. The book's strongest moments directly address violence in a human grain: the abuse the tiger's wife absorbs from her husband, a virtuosic description of an ancient musket and the pain it inflicted over centuries, a desperate search for a family member's remains.
These visceral moments scream out and then quickly dissipate, as if Obreht is willing to give them only so much attention. Her animal allegory needs tending to, after all: When Natalia's home city was bombed in the last war, Obreht tells us, the newspaper launched a column reporting the fate of the zoo's animals. Frustratingly, the fate of the people is more obscure.
Mark Athitakis is a critic based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.