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'The Tiger's Wife:' A Young Talent Takes On Folklore


At 25, Tea Obreht falls on the younger end of writers to pen a literary phenomenon that rises above the din of the publishing world. The Tiger's Wife, her first novel, is a vividly imagined work that draws on the folk culture of the Balkans, where Obreht was born. She lived in Yugoslavia until the age of 7, when the war prompted Obreht, her mother and grandparents to flee to Cyprus and Egypt.

"I've since been back," Obreht told Lynn Neary on Weekend Edition. "I go back once a year to visit my grandmother, so I've managed to put those stories and those experiences of my parents together with my very faint, very young memories of places and people, and then also the stories that I've heard from people that I've reconnected with since I've gone back."

Obreht earned praise from The New Yorker, where she was listed as one of the 20 best writers under 40 (one of the most influential lists in the publishing world), and from the National Book Foundation, which named her one of the five best writers under 35 last year.

She says she is still in a place where it's hard to believe her book has been published and finds herself grateful for the support she's received.

"So many people ... above all, have just read it, which to me is miraculous," Obreht says. "It's an amazing thing for me, and I'm really thankful for it."

A Girl And Her Grandfather

The Tiger's Wife begins as a young doctor, Natalia, learns that her grandfather has died under strange circumstances in a remote village. As she tries to understand what happened, the novel gives a glimpse of life in Eastern Europe before, during and after the most recent conflict that tore it apart, and also portrays her grandfather through two fantastical stories framing his life.

At its core, The Tiger's Wife is the story of a granddaughter's love for her grandfather. Though Obreht says the plot of the novel is not biographical, the story of Natalia and her grandfather was inspired by her own life.

Obreht's grandfather died the year before she started writing The Tiger's Wife, triggering her desire to explore that particular storyline. The Tiger's Wife deals with coming to terms with endings — both of Natalia's grandfather's life and of the unity of her native country. The process of writing the novel helped Obreht herself deal with her grandfather's death, even if it didn't bring her to any sort of comforting conclusions.

"For me it was a lot harder to come to terms with the death of my grandfather than it was to come to terms with what's happened to the former Yugoslavia," Obreht says.

Tall Tales, From Small Slavic Towns

Like Natalia, Obreht grew up listening to her grandfather's stories. While Obreht's grandfather mostly told tales from his own life spent traveling the world as a plane engineer, Natalia's grandfather shares the stories of two memorable mythical characters in particular: the deathless man and the tiger's wife.

The deathless man comes from Slavic and German folkloric tales that explore the necessity of death, though Obreht's particular version evolved from previous incarnations in her other fictional writings. The myth of the tiger's wife was mostly Obreht's own, but she says it draws slightly on the tale of The Beauty and the Beast.

Although she came from Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia, Obreht says she learned about the rural village life that appears in the novel in a "strange and unexpected way." On assignment for Harper's, she traveled to Serbia and Croatia and went door to door asking people for vampire myths they'd heard of in their small towns.

"It was the first time that I really understood the closed-off nature that villages can have, and also the very open nature ... that village life can sometimes extend to strangers," Obreht says.

The story of Natalia learning of her grandfather's death intertwines with her memories growing up as a teenager while "there's a war on," as the characters of the book chime repeatedly to each other, and of the fantastical stories her grandfather would share. Unlike Natalia, Obreht didn't live through the actual war, but she believed she could express the chaos and unrest people felt when living through such a conflict.

"[Egypt and Cyprus] didn't have a turbulent time when I was there," Obreht says. "But there was this underlying unease that I think was prevalent in the youth culture, and I think that seeing that throughout growing up, I was able to access it more fully than I would have been able to otherwise."

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