by Edith Cody-Rice
Téa Obrecht, the 25 year old author ot the Tiger’s Wife, winner of this year’s coveted Orange Prize for fiction, is undoubtedly a talented writer. Writing this tale of the chaos of war and the uniting power of old well entrenched myths and folklore is a daunting task, even for a more experienced author.
The fictional story of a young doctor in the postwar Balkans, and of her grandfather, is drawn from Ms. Obrecht’s own life growing up in Belgrade, steeped in superstition and story telling. She lived with her mother and maternal granparents and imbibed the folklore of the culture. When civil war swept the Balkans in the early 1990’s, she moved with her family to Cyprus, then Egypt and finally to the United States where she and her mother settled when she was twelve.
The Tiger’s Wife tells the story of the relationship of granddaughter and grandfather, the grandfather’s death and the quest that led to it. Among the superstitions penetrating all of life, in the present of the young doctor as well as in the past of the grandfather, there is a real story of a tiger, released from the zoo by wartime bombing, that terrifies a village. The outcome of the tiger’s presence is the heart of the story and a secret behind the grandfather’s preoccupations.
The death of her own grandfather prompted Ms. Obreht to begin writing a short story that turned into the novel. As a result of his death she began experiencing “night terrors”. At the very end, her grandfather realized that he was going to die, but insisted that Ms. Obreht not change her plans – she was graduating from the University of Southern California. After graduation, she visited the grave in Serbia and puzzled at people’s belief in life after death. She is not religious herself although her grandfather was a Catholic from Slovenia and her grandmother was a Muslim from Bosnia. She realized that she herself was going to die someday and this prompted intense reflection. In the fictional story, the grandfather too is a Catholic, and the grandmother a Muslim and the two have a comfortable and loving marriage.
Ms. Obrecht skillfully weaves tragedy and the chaos of war together with the deeply rooted superstitions that define a community. She has a gift for expressing the intangible, and the sensitive use of language reminiscent of Zadie Smith’s talent in the novel White Teeth. She can express a reality in a way that makes the reader feel it. This, however, is an eastern European novel, with those sensibilities in play. It bears some ressemblance to the magic realism of South American works which is not to the taste of all readers.