The Tiger’s Wife

I just finished Tea Obreht’s remarkable The Tiger’s Wife, another of the best novels of the 2010s that I am working my way through. Set in an unnamed Balkan country created after the wars that dismembered Yugoslavia, Obreht creates a devastating portrayal of a society ripped apart by centuries-old ethnic and religious animosities, told in a series of overlapping stories saturated with peasant folklore and magical realism.

A young doctor from one side of a border crosses the boundary to help orphans on the other side and to find the body of her recently dead grandfather, also a doctor. In her journey, she discovers and re-discovers the life of the old man and how he was affected by the second world war, life under “the Marshall” (Tito), and in the subsequent civil and independence wars. Central to it all is a tiger, freed from its captivity in the City zoo by Nazi bombardment. The tiger wanders the countryside until it takes up residence around an isolated village where the grandfather is a boy. Its effect on the villagers drives much of the book

It is a compelling story of one family’s experience of some of Europe’s worst times. But this narrative is shot through with long, perhaps fabulous (in its original sense) episodes in her grandfather’s life that illuminate the role of Death (in its multiple guises) in a peasant world forced to deal with the madness of the twentieth century. It is filled with an array of fascinating Balkan characters and the whole is suffused with dreadful superstition and a kind of black comedy.

I thought this was a marvelous book.

 

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