Téa Obreht’s debut novel spans the period between WWII and the 21st century, tracking between the past and the present with aplomb. As modern-day doctor Natalia journeys across a border in former Yugoslavia to immunise orphans in a struggling village, her grandfather’s life and stories take over her thoughts. Among his tales is his series of encounters with a creepy but affable immortal known as ‘the deathless man’ – a being who can predict life or death by examining an emptied coffee cup.
The grandfather’s narrative is a terrifically involving knot of legend and history. He encounters an escaped zoo tiger, a tragic deaf-mute (the tiger’s wife of the title), a secretive apothecary, a monstrous folk singer-turned-butcher, a noble taxidermist, war and ‘the deathless man’. Even while channelling the perspective of the escaped tiger, Obreht is appealingly succinct. The contemporary story is the sketchier of the novel’s halves, but it is still an effective portrait of badly wounded people across all ethnic lines. In one of the subplots, Natalia is drawn into conflict with a man who believes his sick family will be cured not by medicine, but by the exhumation and purification of a cousin killed in the war. The underlying message: though peace may have come to the Balkans, it is a haunted one. Whether or not notions such as the ‘deathless man’ immediately appeal to the reader, Obreht is a controlled prose stylist and a consummate yarn spinner, and it’s difficult not to fall for her.