By Ron Charles
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; C04
Tea Obreht's swirling first novel, "The Tiger's Wife," draws us beneath the clotted tragedies in the Balkans to deliver the kind of truth that histories can't touch. Born in Belgrade in 1985 - no, that's not a typo - she captures the thirst for consecration that a century of war has left in that bloody part of the world. It's a novel of enormous ambitions that manages in its modest length to contain the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, Turks and Ottomans, science and superstition.
The story, which demands a luxurious stretch of concentration, works on two levels that initially seem unrelated but eventually wind around each other evocatively. In the present day, the narrator is a young doctor named Natalia, who travels 400 miles on a "goodwill mission" to inoculate orphans at a monastery in a town now separated from her home by a new border. Just as she arrives, she gets word that her beloved grandfather, also a physician, has died while coming to help her. His death is not a surprise - she alone knew he had cancer - but the circumstances strike her as odd.
Obreht has lived in the United States since she was 12, but she creates a vivid sense of this war-torn region (we're never told exactly where all this is taking place). Her thoughtful narrator must navigate the land mines - literal and political - that still blot the countryside. Natalia's world is a steampunk mingling of modern technology and traditional tools - cellphones and antibiotics alongside picks and poultices.
But what confounds her medical work at the monks' orphanage is a conflict of values, which touches on the novel's most interesting theme. While Natalia administers vaccines, a group of ragged people is digging in a vineyard behind the monastery. They're not gardening; they're looking for the body of a cousin abandoned 12 years ago during the war. One of the men is convinced that if they can properly rebury this relative, the sickness affecting their village will abate. Natalia, of course, would rather these superstitious men allow her to examine and treat their children, but she also appreciates their need to recover and sanctify the remains of the dead. Indeed, she now feels the same obligation.
This activity in the present is only the novel's skeleton; the meat of the book is supplied by the lyrical stories Natalia remembers from her grandfather. These tales take place in a time of isolated villages inhabited by craftsman, traveling peddlers and healers. That "The Tiger's Wife" never slips entirely into magical realism is part of its magic - its agile play with tragic material and with us - because, despite Natalia and her grandfather's devotion to science and rationality, this is a story that bleeds into fable with the slightest scratch.
Two semi-mythical characters dominate her grandfather's reminiscences, stories flecked with macabre humor that sound at times like Balkan versions of Isaac Bashevis Singer. One is "the deathless man," the nephew of Death himself, who came originally to heal but eventually to carry the souls of the deceased to the other side. Again and again, her grandfather crossed paths with this mournful but congenial man, whose story he never allowed himself to fully believe.
The other character is a deaf and mute woman, viciously abused by her husband, who befriended a tiger in the woods. It's a big, violent, romantic symbol, like Melville's whale, a fiery orange canvas onto which any number of meanings might be projected. Natalia claims that "everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife and the story of the deathless man," but his relationship to these mysterious characters yields only more evocative questions. Indeed, it has to be said: There are times when "The Tiger's Wife" reaches more for affect than for coherence.
But the reception for this book couldn't be more encouraging. Well-deserved praise has been accumulating ever since Obreht published a chapter in the New Yorker almost two years ago, and now that we have the whole, its graceful commingling of contemporary realism and village legend seems even more absorbing.
Also, its sentiments are refreshingly un-American. Anxiously youth-obsessed, we've always been awkward and weird about death; our rituals for grieving and commemorating are still chaotic and ad hoc. But "The Tiger's Wife" never strays far from the desire of desperate people to do right by the dead, no matter how much time has passed.
"What shall we bury?" is the plaintive cry in towns repeatedly bombed and burned. Scattered bones must be collected, washed and put to rest. The Balkans' legacy of living amid so much carnage and desecration has produced what Obreht calls "the delusion of normalcy, but never peace." That sounds grim and depressing, but conveyed in storytelling this enchanting, it's the life you remember.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor. He reviews every Wednesday.
THE TIGER'S WIFE
By Tea Obreht
Random House. 338 pp. $25