Rating: 3 & 1/2 Stars
The setting of Tea Obreht’s intriguing debut novel is plausibly inspired by the country formerly known as Yugoslavia, before it splintered into numerous Balkan states. The magic realism of the novel is enhanced by the exotic location of this lesser known European region. The amalgamation of different cultures and faiths; the zigzagging between the present, past, and not so recent past; and the blend of myth, superstition, folk-lore and fairy tale make for a heady concoction. But the author dishes it up with panache.
The plot has multiple strands to it – the protagonist is a young physician, Natalia, out on a humanitarian mission to the neighboring country that till recently was part of her own land, till internecine warfare played havoc on geographical and political boundaries. Natalia herself seems bemused by this situation, but only enough to remark on it occasionally. Her more pressing concern is the sudden, mysterious death of her beloved grandfather, and her own taxing job of administering inoculations to the wary children at the orphanage she is visiting.
As she attempts to continue her work, she finds herself distracted by a secretive family digging in the vineyards - an act alarming enough in a land that is trip wired for mines. Disturbed by this ailing family’s refusal of her proffered medical assistance, her mind wanders to the stories told to her by her grandfather – tales of Darisa the Bear; the Deathless Man – Gavran Gaile; and, the eponymous heroine of the book, the fey young woman rumored by the village gossips to be the bride of the tiger that’s terrorizing the countryside.
Obreht skillfully weaves these disparate elements into a tapestry of haunting beauty. A talented story-teller, she knows how to hold her audience’s attention. She takes us to the threshold of magic, but seems to stop shy of crossing it. Still, this is only the beginning of Obreht’s personal story. Let’s hope there’s much more to follow.