Tea Obreht is, undoubtedly, the best expert on her debut novel, “The Tiger’s Wife” ($25, Random House). But she’s also a student of it, learning more about its themes — and herself — each time she discusses the book.

The topic of myth, and “whether it’s important to make the distinction between myth and reality,” snuck into the story “behind my back,” Obreht says. The central role of animals in her creative landscape, “was news to me.” And the narrator’s close relationship with her story-telling grandfather, which parallels Obreht’s rapport with her late grandfather, is another detail that she didn’t appreciate until later. “It’s very strange to be in touch with those parts of the book now, in retrospect,” Obreht says.

To be sure, the 25-year-old is at the age when truths about yourself are still becoming apparent, when you’re still establishing your own story. So far, hers is one of remarkable success. As the New York Times observed, Obreht’s book has received “the sort of reviews that many writers wait an entire career for.”

Born in Belgrade, Obreht left the former Yugoslavia at age 7 with her family and spent the next years in Cyprus, Egypt and the U.S. So, the Balkans-set “Tiger’s Wife” — about a young doctor coming to grips with her grandfather’s death — represents a homecoming.

“The first book you write — people have told me this — it brings you home; you will go home to your childhood,” says Obreht, who now lives in Ithaca, N.Y.

Obreht drew upon early memories to shape her tale. The zoo beloved by narrator Natalia, for example, is based on Belgrade’s zoo, a “touchstone” of Obreht’s life.

Other themes are more universal. The “deathless man” in Natalia’s grandfather’s tales references German and Slavic mythology. The “tiger’s wife” (a deaf-mute woman ostracized by her village for befriending a tiger) is a character of Obreht’s own invention. But later, Obreht realized the figure belongs in the “beauty and the beast canon”: “She’s in touch with something horrific on a level that others around her don’t understand.”

Though Obreht’s manuscript left her hands months ago, she still feels as if she’s in writing mode. Answering questions about her book continues to prompt revelations. She doesn’t mind, though: “It’s this fascinating aspect of all of this; it’s a bonus.”

Itinerary: The Tigers’ Visitor
Since some of Tea Obreht’s relatives moved to Washington in 2009, she’s made many trips to the National Zoo to visit (What else?) the big cats. “It’s becoming this joke: ‘Well, we have to go see the tigers,'” Obreht says. “It’s cute in a nerdy sort of way.”

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

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