Much has been made of the fact that Téa Obreht was named as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 and to the New Yorker’s Top 20 under 40.
These are wonderful honors, and yes, Obreht is very young and talented. But what really matters is her writing. Her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife is being released this week. It is a book that I fell in love with when I read the arc in January, and have been pressing people to add to their to-read lists ever since. I expect to see it on the major best books of the year lists, and it will certainly be on my personal favorites list come December.
Why for teens? It is not about a teenager (although the main character, Natalia, still acts and thinks like one sometimes). My instinct is to recommend this for teens because I know exactly which young readers I want to hand it to, and have been looking forward to doing so for weeks. I will give this to the writers, the readers, and the kids who love a challenge.
The Tiger’s Wife is about stories, and love and death and war. It centers on the relationship between a woman and her grandfather, and the grandfather’s stories. He tells two stories about his past, one about the deathless man and one about the tiger’s wife. He tells them, despite their supernatural or improbable elements, as truth.
Obreht layers his stories within the woman’s current attempt to understand the circumstances of her grandfather’s death.
Yes, the narrative is something of a puzzle. There are mysteries to be uncovered. I had to read twice to put all of the pieces together. I do not believe that teens will be put off by that, or by the setting: the Balkans at war and recovering from war. The writing is not humorless or unremittingly bleak. It holds moments of great beauty. Teens will thank you for introducing them to an example of the new, great literature of our times.
OBREHT, Téa. The Tiger’s Wife. 352p. Random. Mar. 2011. Tr $25. ISBN 978-0-385-34383-1. LC 2010009612.
Adult/High School–Natalia is a young doctor in a Balkan country recovering from years at war. She is on a journey to deliver vaccinations to an orphanage when she receives word that her grandfather, a celebrated doctor, has died in a remote village. Why did he travel there, lie to his wife and his granddaughter, knowing that he was dying? Trying to understand, Natalia recollects the hours they spent at the zoo when she was younger, sitting in front of the tiger’s cage while he read to her from The Jungle Book, or told her pieces of the two stories central to his life: the story of the deathless man and the story of the tiger’s wife. As the novel progresses, these stories from his past intersect with the present. Obreht’s writing is gorgeous, descriptive, and strong, creating vivid, unforgettable visions of unique settings such as the billowing curtains in the restaurant on a bluff overlooking a river, where Natalia’s grandfather dines with the deathless man while bombs explode in the distance, destruction approaching a place that will not exist by morning. It is up to readers to decide if the author employs magical realism, or presents a world that has lived with war for so long that everyday life has moved beyond the commonplace. The Tiger’s Wife is a meditation on death, love, and war in the modern world that follows Natalia’s determined pursuit of the motives surrounding her grandfather’s last days and the deathless man himself. For mature teen readers, the time spent savoring the writing, the stories, and the intricacies of their connections will be well rewarded.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart. New York City