“The Jungle Book” is like “The Wizard of Oz”: Everyone knows the story (or thinks they do), so most people don’t bother to read it – or read it to their children – anymore.
Rudyard Kipling might have fallen out of fashion, but his most famous creation has inspired three terrific new books in the past five years. Neil Gaiman used “The Jungle Book” as a jumping-off point for his Newbery Award-winning “The Graveyard Book,” while David Wroblewski’s bestselling “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” also acknowledges its debt to the boy who was raised by wolves. Now, that lame, striped hunter, Shere Khan, stalks the pages of Téa Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife.
Obreht, 25, was named one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” notable fiction writers, and “The Tiger’s Wife” was excerpted in the magazine. Since the novel’s publication this month, Obreht has been garnering the kind of lavish praise and headlines not seen for a 20-something debut author since Zadie Smith’s first novel, “White Teeth” in 2000.
You’re expecting a “but” here, aren’t you? Let me not keep you in suspense: It’s that good.
Obreht, who was born in Belgrade and escaped the Balkan War as a child, knows the magic of the words: “let me tell you a story.” While her novel has a modern frame, the heart, meat, and sinew of the novel are the tales a grandfather tells his granddaughter.
“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man,” explains the granddaughter. When the grandfather was a child, a tiger escaped from the capital and roamed the hills above his village, causing the villagers no end of consternation. The lone exceptions were the boy, who adored “The Jungle Book,” and a young deaf woman, who were both firmly on the side of the tiger.
Decades later, the grandfather, Dr. Stefanovic, would take his granddaughter, Natalia, to visit the tigers at the zoo every week and tell her about the “girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.”
When “The Tiger’s Wife” opens, Natalia, now a Dr. Stefanovic herself, is on a humanitarian mission to vaccinate orphans at a monastery when she gets a call that her grandfather has died in a strange village, on his way to see her. In what seems a minor mystery, his personal effects – his watch, glasses, and the gilt-edged copy of “The Jungle Book” he always kept in his pocket – have vanished.
Meanwhile, in the village where Natalia is staying, sick people are digging in the fields, looking for the body of a relative who was killed in the war, convinced that their family will not be healed until they find him.
Obreht, who moved to the United States when she was 12, after stints in Cairo and Cyprus, never had to live through the war, which ripped apart what had been Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But her chapters of Natalia’s teenage years could easily convince a reader she was there.
Obreht also understands the power of myth and superstition. “He learned,” the narrator says of a character, “that when confounded by the extremes of life – whether good or bad – people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.”
The stories Natalia recalls are full of supernatural creatures like the deathless man, a mild-mannered type who always knows when somebody is going to die, but “The Tiger’s Wife” doesn’t veer into magic realism. Instead, Obreht uses the tales to create a climate of wonder and horror right out of a fairy tale.
Obreht layers story upon story, creating something almost as dense as a baklava. In the middle of one, she’ll pause to reveal the complete history of the village’s lone gun, which is soon to be put to use hunting tigers. Readers with no taste for tangents will want to seek elsewhere. “The Tiger’s Wife” can be gorgeous, but the plot doesn’t so much run in a line as glory in atmospheric tangles.
Ladies and tigers have been united memorably several times before in literature, from limericks to short stories. Obreht’s evocative novel should rank among the most indelible pairings of all.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.