Sam Jordison did a fine review of this book for me in Salon Futura. He concentrates on the use of fantasy to add meaning and understanding to a book that is about a brutal civil war. I don’t want to simply re-tread what he has said, so instead I’m going to focus on the fantasy aspect of the book, that being what I know most about.
Before I do that, however, I should note that Téa Obreht is a wonderful writer. Her prose is crisp and flowing, her settings well-realized, her characters vivid. I am not in the least bit surprised that the book took the literary world by storm. She’s also a natural story-teller. In fact she reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman, so much so that while reading the book I kept imagining that it was a Sandman story. None of the Endless are actually involved, of course, but the bitter-sweet way in which the story is told seemed very much like something Neil would have done. The fact that both Obreht’s book and The Graveyard Book are in part inspired by another master story-teller, Rudyard Kipling, may help explain what is going on here.
As Sam notes, the book is composed of three separate narrative strands. All three may contain some element of the fantastic. The first, the story of the Tiger’s Wife, involves a battered wife who somehow manages to seduce a tiger, which then acts as her protector. The second is the story of the Deathless Man, who is condemned to live forever after having offended his uncle, Death. And the third story involves a sick family, a wise woman who explains how to lift the curse that is on them, and a “mora”, a spirit who raids graves (Wikipedia says the word means “nightmare” in Serbian and Croatian). All three of these stories may also be made up.
The story of the Tiger’s Wife is a tale from the childhood of the narrator’s grandfather. It takes place in a small, remote village during WWII and explains how the grandfather first became obsessed with tigers. All of the characters, including the Tiger himself (who escaped from a zoo after a German bombing raid) have their own background tales, and everything comes together to illustrate how superstitious and ignorant most of the villagers are. The grandfather, a child at the time, is one of the few villagers to have sympathy for the Tiger, and his growing distaste for his neighbors results in him leaving the village and studying to become a doctor.
Is the story true? It might be. No actual supernatural intervention takes place, though the villagers are all convinced that the Tiger is a demon of some sort. Given that the Tiger came from a zoo, it is possible that a human woman could forge a bond with it. What the story does, however, is establish the grandfather as someone who fights against superstition.
The story of the Deathless Man also comes to us via the narrator’s grandfather, though again filtered by her. After WWII the grandfather, now a trained doctor, meets a man who claims to be able to cheat death. In their first encounter he actually rises from a coffin. The villagers where the encounter takes place all assume that he is a vampire. The doctor, of course, does not believe in such things. He agrees a wager with the supposed Deathless Man by which, if he can be convinced of the truth of the stranger’s deathlessness, the doctor will give up his most treasured possession, a battered copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
The Doctor and the Deathless Man have several encounters over the years, and many obvious demonstrations of the stranger’s resistance to death are given. If nothing else, the fact that he ages not one bit, while the doctor adds several decades to his life, ought to clinch matters. However, the doctor stubbornly refuses to give up his book. Deathless Men are illogical. They should not be.
Our final story is told live by the narrator, Natalia. By now she is a grown woman, and a doctor in her own right. The Civil War has been and gone, and the country into which she was born is no longer a single entity. The loving grandfather, who took her on so many trips to the zoo to see the tigers, is now old and dying. Sickness, however, is never defeated. Natalia had her childhood friend, Zóra, now also a doctor, have set off into the newly foreign country to bring much needed medicine to an orphanage. Shortly after they arrive, Natalia gets a phone call from home. Grandfather had apparently set off after her, determined to help, but then a message came from a clinic in a village no one had heard of to say that he had died there. There is mourning to be done, but the family has no body to bury.
Natalia becomes convinced that her grandfather, knowing he was dying, had set off in search of the Deathless Man so that he could finally make good on his wager and hand over his copy of The Jungle Book. Through her interactions with the family of sick peasants, and the villagers in whose home she is staying, she learns things that suggest that the Deathless Man may even be living nearby, and she might meet him.
Is any of this true? Well, to some extent you’ll need to read the book to find out. What I can tell you, however, is that there is a thread binding the stories together, and that thread is one that also links the dead to the living. Wars are mindless things that terrify people. Superstitious people behave in crazy ways. Doctors try their best to make sense of all this insanity, but it is never easy. Even on amazing far-future starships, the doctor still shakes his head at the stupidity of his fellow men. And doctors often make light of things because it is the only way they can cope with what they have to do. My favorite passage from the book (and one that reminds me very much of Neil) is one where the grandfather has discovered that Natalia wants to specialize in pediatrics. He has some words of warning for her.
He sat up, pushed his chair away from the table and rubbed his knees. “When men die, they die in fear,” he said. “They take everything they need from you, and as a doctor it is your job to give it, to comfort them, to hold their hand. But children die how they have been living — in hope. They don’t know what’s happening, so they expect nothing, they don’t ask you to hold their hand — but you end up needing them to hold yours. With children, you’re on your own. Do you understand?
The Goth girl with the ankh pendant doesn’t make an appearance in the book, though much of what she might have said is put in the mouth of the Deathless Man instead. Ultimately, whether the stories are real or not doesn’t matter. The lesson that the grandfather learns through the Civil War, and that Natalia learns at the end of the book, is that we need to believe in supernatural beings.
For Obreht, who isn’t really a fantasy writer, the object of the book is to tell us readers that Death exists. Neil, who is a fantasy writer, knows that he doesn’t have to tell his readers this, so he puts Her right there in the action. In some ways it is a small difference, but in others it is a very big one.