'The Tiger's Wife' Flush With Elegance And Life

Alan Cheuse reviews the debut novel The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Before a novelist can really write about the world, she has to have seen a bit of it, and Tea Obreht certainly has. She was born in the former Yugoslavia. She spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt, and then immigrated to the United States, all by the age of 12. Now, 26, Obreht is about to publish her first novel, and our reviewer Alan Cheuse is as enthusiastic as he can be about a literary debut.

ALAN CHEUSE: Natalia Stefanovi, the narrator of this stunning first novel, is a young doctor who in the period just after the latest round of Balkan wars sets off to a remote seaside town to immunize children in need.

Her grandfather inspired her to become a physician. His death, while on a mysterious visit to the village of his World War II childhood, inspires young Natalia to gather up the fragments of his life.

Obreht writes with an angel's pen about this, creating a skein of descriptive passages flush with apt details and ringing with lyrical diction about city life, country life, private dreams and public difficulties and about the way the past and present come together in a complex and seething whole.

Here's her recounting of the astonishing life of the tiger of the title who during her grandfather's childhood escapes from a city zoo during a World War II German bombing raid and treads its way through the urban streets and then up into the hilly countryside where it ultimately becomes the companion of a lonely, battered, deaf-mute wife.

Up on one of the ridges, Obreht writes, with its bowed saplings and deadfall underfoot, the steep flank of the mountain studded with caves, the wild game wide eyed and reckless with the starvation of winter, trapped the tiger between his new broadening senses and the vaguely familiar smell of the village below: the thick wooly smell of sheep and goats; the smell of fire, tar, wax; the interesting reek of the outhouses, paper, iron; the individual smells of people, the savory smells of stew and goulash, the grease of baking pies.

And some nights later, there was a new smell. He had sensed that here and there in the past, the momentary aroma of salt and wood smoke rich with blood.

As the tiger senses it, that's the smell of life, and this novel reeks of it.

SIEGEL: Tea Obreht's debut novel is called "The Tiger's Wife." Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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