Tea Obreht still dreams in Serbian, but it’s the waking memories of her lost homeland that have captured the nation’s literary imagination.
The author of “The Tiger’s Wife,” a tale of dark realism and darker myths in the war-ravaged Balkans, has seen her debut novel rack up sales, awards and critical acclaim. Now, according to an industry newsletter’s tabulation of “best of” lists, it has the unofficial title of “the runaway book of the year.”
At least 19 major year-end roundups cite the novel as one of 2011’s best, according to Publishers Lunch, an online newsletter that covers the publishing industry. Michael Cader, the site’s founder, surveyed 45 lists by “newspapers, magazines, leading retailers, prominent individual critics and major prize-winners and nominees” for his annual compilation. He adds, in an e-mail, that “it is clear . . . the book has more consensus momentum than any other.”
If you’re looking for Obreht to be your basic war-haunted refugee, smoking French cigarettes in the hallway and muttering about Balkan politics, you’ll walk right past the gregarious author with the blond hair and infectious giggle.
“I realize that a large part of this conversation is just laughter from Tea,” she says at midpoint of a 90-minute conversation last week.
Should we mention here that Obreht is 26 but wrote most of the book when she was 23? That she’s writing in her second language? That she enrolled at the University of Southern California at 16? That she won this year’s Orange Prize, Britain’s award for the best novel published by a woman? That she was a finalist for the National Book Award? That “The Tiger’s Wife” has sold about 90,000 copies in hardcover since its March release and more than 60,000 in paperback since it came out two months ago? That she sold the rights to her next book, as yet unwritten, for more than $500,000, according to industry reports?
“I’ve had this feeling all year that this is not happening to me, like it’s some out-of-body experience,” Obreht says from Ithaca, N.Y., where she lives in the same small apartment she had while attending graduate school at Cornell. “You get connected to the book as this thing that lives inside your computer in your room. And then you go out to the store one day and there it is, living as its own entity.”
While there’s no such thing as the best book of the year — there are too many prizes and honors that tap different books — “The Tiger’s Wife” seems to have an insurmountable lead in terms of widespread acclaim, Cader says. No other book appears on more than 13 lists.
“She keeps so many different stories going in that book, and they’re all so smart,” says Ann Patchett, a former Orange Prize winner whose most recent work, “State of Wonder,” is on a number of the best-of lists, as well. “It’s a really, really ambitious book.”
It’s also a really, really unlikely story to capture the American imagination.
The primary narrative is about Natalia, an idealistic young doctor in an unnamed Balkan country who is on a mercy mission to an orphanage in a neighboring republic after a recent, unnamed war (which is clearly the 1990s conflict that destroyed Yugoslavia).
Meanwhile, her grandfather dies under mysterious circumstances at a remote clinic. Her exploration of his death leads her into the realm of Balkan myth and superstition and how they shape the stories people tell about themselves.
There are her grandfather’s tales of his encounters with “the deathless man.” There is the story of a deaf-mute woman in a tiny village long ago. The girl becomes obsessed with a tiger that has escaped from a zoo and fled into the mountains.
Here’s the aftermath of the tiger’s foray into the village smokehouse. Natalia’s great-grandmother sees the tiger fleeing the building and thinks it has killed her son.
“She was still screaming when the doors of the houses from around the square opened, one by one, and the men spilled out into the streets and gave chase to the edge of the pasture. Loud voices, and then light and men filling the doorway, even Luka the butcher, looking furious in his nightshirt and slippers, a cleaver in his hand. The deaf-mute girl helped my grandfather to his feet, and led him to the door. From the smokehouse ramp, he could see the dark, empty field, swimming with shadows: the villagers, the snowdrifts, the fence, but not the tiger. The tiger was already gone.”
Obreht was born in Belgrade in 1985, the only child of a single mom, Maja, an economist. She was close to her mother’s parents, Zahida and Stefan Obreht, who helped raise her. Her grandfather was an aeronautical engineer and traveled widely, bringing home stories that enchanted her with their flair for the exotic.
When she was 7, the war broke out. Yugoslavia began to break apart in a devastating civil war. Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, wasn’t close to the fighting, but there was reason to worry: Her grandmother was Muslim and her grandfather Roman Catholic, religions associated with Bosnia and Croatia, respectively. In those days of war, such distinctions were serious.
The family didn’t exactly flee the conflict, but when her mother found a job in Cyprus, she thought it wise to move. The grandparents joined them, and, after 18 months, they all moved to Cairo when her grandfather landed a job there. Three years later, they moved again, joining extended family living outside Atlanta. Her mother remarried, and they moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to be near her stepfather’s job.
During these migrations, she was a child who read and wrote extensively, penning her first novel at age 8. “I think it was about a goat, and he probably had a bad day.”
She was a brilliant student — she skipped two grades — and was enchanted with the fables and myths that were the underpinnings to Balkan lore. Her fiction, even in her early 20s, was so striking that she was published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, and anthologized in “The Best American Short Stories.” The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best fiction writers under 40.
In 2007, she was living in Ithaca, N.Y., and taking a grad-school writing class. One weekend, with a story deadline looming, she was trapped by a winter storm in her apartment. She watched a National Geographic show about Siberian tigers and a Russian researcher. The researcher’s wife, who had helped raise them since cubs, had a unusually close rapport with them.
“So I sat down and wrote a terrible short story,” she said. It was called “The Tiger’s Wife.” It was panned in class, but she had an idea she liked.
Writing almost always late at night — with the occasional escape to a Starbucks across the street — she started piecing the novel together, in episodes, on notecards, on storyboards. She started weaving in the collapse of her home nation, moved the story of the tiger and the girl to an earlier era in the Balkans and found a way to include a haunting story about “the deathless man.” She used a spot on the Adriatic Coast, where her family once had a summer home, as the setting for Natalia’s fictional trip to the orphanage.
Obreht’s grandfather had died of cancer the year before and, to her surprise, her relationship with him blossomed into the emotional center of the book. “The story itself is not autobiographical, but the relationship between Natalia and her grandfather is so closely modeled on our relationship,” she says. “His death was forefront on my mind, I suppose. It was my first real emotional loss. It became important to be emotionally honest about that.”
And maybe, in the process, the novel taught her something about stories she tells not only about her homeland but about herself.
Her surname is Bajraktarevic. In accordance with one of her grandfather’s last wishes, she took his surname — Obreht — as her pen name. But it has become so much an ingrained part of her personality, she realized one day when signing a check with his last name, that she is now changing it to her legal last name.
You can see her spinning that tale to her grandchildren one day.