“The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death.” Tea Obreht’s first novel begins with a haunting superstitionto set the tone of this mythological novel that takes place in an unidentified Balkan country. Natalia is a young physician bringing vaccines to a remote orphanage. Troubled by her grandfather’s recent passing, she finds herself unable to resist slipping away to the nearby village in which he died. She goes not only to collect his belongings, but also to discover his motive for journeying alone and neglecting to tell anyone. As she sets out to uncover the truth, she is reminded of the old stories that have guided her grandfather’s path. One story spans his entire lifetime as he repeatedly encounters the Deathless Man, a lone traveler who claims he is immortal and can predict the fate of other men. Natalia knows her grandfather was indebted to this man and wonders if this character is responsible for his death. The other story comes from his distant childhood. It is the tale of a roaming tiger who finds peace only while in the arms of a mute and damaged girl, the girl known as the “Tiger’s Wife.”
Just as Natalia sets up to begin inoculating the orphans, she discovers the grounds are temporarily inhabited by a mysteriously ill community of silent diggers looking for a lost body. They are secretive about their search, forcing even the sickest children to dig from dawn until dusk, refusing offers for medical treatment. Although she is there on a simple mission to save the lives of children, it seems Natalia is unable to escape the presence of death and all of its accompanying superstition.
Richly filled with Balkan folklore and descriptions of hardship felt by a country still recovering from war, this novel felt eerily dangerous to read. That being said, I couldn’t put The Tiger’s Wife down!