THE MAIN PLOT of The Tiger's Wife is simple. A young doctor from a country resembling Serbia has come to an orphanage in a town in a country resembling Bosnia to administer immunizations, a sort of atonement/reconciliation mission. Her grandfather, to whom she was close, has recently died while on a trip to another town nearby; she drives over there to inquire about his death and pick up his effects. A group of people from yet another village happens also to be in the town with the orphanage; they are digging around, trying to find the corpse of a townsman who died and was buried without due ceremony there during the war twelve years ago. They find the body, and the young doctor participates in a peculiar ritual designed to ease the dead man's soul. Recurrent theme: things we do for the dead, which simultaneously are things we do for ourselves.
More of a short story, really--what bulks the story out to a novel are the interpolated tales. Two in particular are thoroughly developed, both about the grandfather: first, a series of encounters over many years with the "deathless man," who has the power of knowing when a person's time is up, but cannot himself die; second, the story of the woman of the title, the deaf, mute, and abused wife of the butcher in the grandfather's boyhood village, who forms an unlikely alliance with the grandfather (nine years old at the time) and a tiger who escaped from the zoo (destroyed in a WW II air raid) and made his way into the neighborhood.
Beyond that, we get the back-stories on many of the minor characters, including some of the characters in the interpolated story of the tiger's wife.
What with the accumulation of embedded stories providing some of the texture of a traditional, mainly oral culture, and the additional whiff of the supernatural (a man who cannot die, a woman who has formed a pair-bond with a tiger), we are discernibly in "magical realism" territory. Given the august examples already in circulation (Grass, Garcia Marquez, Morrison, Rushdie), it would be hard for this novel to avoid having a studied, slightly second-hand air. That is exactly the air, I think, it has.
Matters are not helped by Obreht's tendency towards superfluous description, e.g.:
The highway narrows into a single-lane road and begins to climb--a slight incline at first, forest-rimmed pastures, bright flushes of green that open up suddenly as you come around the curves. Cars heading down the mountain toward you are small, crowded with families, and sliding into your lane. Already your radio is picking up news from across the border, but the signal is faint, and the voices are lost to static for minutes at a time.
Hmm. Apparently rural driving in the Balkans is a lot like...rural driving. I thought MFA programs were supposed to wean young writers away from this sort of thing. Someone needs to step up and be Obreht's Gordon Lish.
There are some good things, though, too--the tiger is described at one point as appearing "carved in sunlight"--nice one. Obreht is audacious enough to write a few passages from the tiger's point of view, in one of which he spotted something and "his instincts slammed open"--nice one again. On page 279 there's a convincing description of a city being bombed:
...she watched a missile hit the old brick building across the river, the vacuum of sound as the blue light went down, straight down, through the top of the building and then blasted out the windows and the doors and the wooden shutters, the bronze name on the building, the plaques commemorating the dead....
The building does not fall, but stands "like a jawless skull."
Obreht has thought a lot about hate, too, and the story of how the village turns on the tiger's wife is grimly compelling and feels true. Her story, separated from the contemporary frame, would have made a good novella all by itself, I think. She has a palpability that neither the young doctor nor her grandfather, even though they are the main characters, quite attains.