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A Book A Week: The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht is extremely good, better than most of what I've read this year. No wonder it won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, a British award for best novel written in English by a woman. It's very mature and covers a lot of ground: myth, immortality, family relationships, and war and its aftermath. Obreht's writing is self-assured, and she maintains firm control over her material, which is saying something, when the material is this complicated.

Framing the novel is a story about a young woman, Natalia, and her grandfather, both doctors in the former Yugoslavia. Natalia is working on a project to vaccinate children in a remote village somewhere in the Balkans when she hears of her grandfather's mysterious death. Compelled to investigate the circumstances, Natalia makes a journey, both physical and psychological, through everything she knows about her grandfather, including his tales of his youth during World War II, his young professional days in communist Yugoslavia, and his work during the beginning of the Bosnian war.

These stories make up the heart of the novel and most of them share a border with fantasy. But this myth-making is central to Obreht's Eastern European storytelling tradition. At one point (through the voice of one of her characters) she explains to us the role of myth in the history of the Balkans: "He learned, too, that when confounded by the extremes of life -- whether good or bad -- people would turn first to superstition to find meaning." Grandfather's myths include stories of a love affair between a tiger and a woman, a man who is half bear, and the exploits of the devil's nephew, also known as "the deathless man."

In the hands of a less skilled writer, this book could be a muddle. Or, as sometimes happens, the internal stories could be more fully realized than the framing ones -- I'm thinking now of People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. But Obreht is better than that. Natalia's story and those told by her grandfather are equally compelling. I loved all of it.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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