About a third of the way into The Tiger's Wife, the first book from Téa Obreht, a Nazi bomb blows a hole in the wall of the Belgrade Zoo, freeing the tiger that gives the novel its name.
The tiger heads north, up the Danube, through fields and swamps filled with war dead and into the mountains above the town of Galina where it settles, preying on livestock and local game and the occasional unlucky hunter. One night, lured by the smell of food, it creeps down to the village into a butcher's smokehouse where it comes upon the butcher's wife in the back of the building waiting with a piece of meat in her hand. Finding his wife feeding the tiger, the butcher ties her up inside the smokehouse and leaves her there to be eaten. Several days later, however, he's the one who's gone missing, and two weeks after that his now-widow appears in town pregnant with what's rumored to be the tiger's child.
What exactly happened within this curious triangle is the mystery that drives the novel; the action, such as it is, revolves around the narrator Natalia's efforts to make sense of the tale. The book is a story about stories—their uses and misuses; what they explain and what they obscure. Chock-full of fantastic narratives, it reads, by and large, like magical realism. There's a recurring skepticism about the stories being told, though, that gives it an almost metafictional air. A doctor, Natalia boasts a strong rationalist streak, however difficult it may be to make sense of the last century or so of Balkan history.
An alum of the New Yorker's 20-under-40 fiction list, Obreht can certainly write, and the novel is filled with strange, lovely images. An elephant drags "its curled trunk like a fist along the ground."The tiger spends his days in captivity "feeding on fat white columns of spine."His slow trek northward out of the city toward Galina draws him through a blasted landscape of ruins and corpses, the surroundings wonderfully prefiguring and then paralleling his own growing savagery. An episode describing a visit by Natalia's grandfather to the besieged city of Sarobor shows off a terrific sense of structure and pacing.
But there's also a surprising amount of indiffrent prose mixed in—long, drab stretches that seem mainly designed just to move the book along. The novel's present-day portions, in particular, feel half-heartedly done—more like scaffolding thrown up to bridge bits of plot than fully realized pieces of writing. It also suffers somewhat from its perhaps too many storylines. Instead of keying off one another to multiply the narrative's momentum, they're often on each other's toes, making the novel seem simultaneously unfocused and overstuffed.
None of which is to say it's not a fine book—especially for a first effort. It's richly imagined and in many parts beautifully written. There's just probably a slightly slimmer, slightly better version hiding within.