Unbelievably good first novel! Ms. Obreht is going to be fun to watch over the coming years. Initially, I turned down an advanced reader copy of this one because the plot sounded a little chaotic to me. A reading friend gave it five stars and a glowing review; we don’t always agree over books, but her review made me give it another look. Thank you, Susan! I couldn’t agree more!
Generally, I synopsize my reads in a couple of quick sentences, but there are so many layers to this plot that I am cheating and giving you Random House’s advanced publication copy (the same one that made me turn the book down initially...):
In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself.
But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel.
Grief struck and searching for clues to her grandfather’s final state of mind, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child. On their weekly trips to the zoo he would read to her from a worn copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which he carried with him everywhere; later, he told her stories of his own encounters over many years with “the deathless man,” a vagabond who claimed to be immortal and appeared never to age. But the most extraordinary story of all is the one her grandfather never told her, the one Natalia must discover for herself. One winter during the Second World War, his childhood village was snowbound, cut off even from the encroaching German invaders but haunted by another, fierce presence: a tiger who comes ever closer under cover of darkness. “These stories,” Natalia comes to understand, “run like secret rivers through all the other stories” of her grandfather’s life. And it is ultimately within these rich, luminous narratives that she will find the answer she is looking for.
This is one of those books which, when you close the cover for the final time, makes you sit there for a moment staring at the picture on the front and thinking, “Wow!”
In structure, the book has the feel of being composed of a number of short stories. While this is Ms. Obreht’s first novel, she is an acclaimed short story author, so it is possible that this technique was used intensionally. What the author manages to do with these segments is what speaks to her great gifts. Imagine sentences as silken threads of a tapestry, woven into sections. As the narrative moves forward, many such sections emerge, and the background begins to fill in and connect the seemingly disparate parts. Téa Obreht is a master weaver. Never does the book come across feeling as if someone tried to write together a batch of shorter pieces.
Setting would probably be the weakest point of the novel. Not that it is poorly done-just not as powerfully written as some of the other elements. No specific country is given as the setting, but given the author’s birthplace, the novel almost certainly takes place in the former Yugoslavia, just after its partition. The reader is given a clear picture of place, people, and customs.
Ms. Obreht shows a strong talent for depicting relationships. The relationship between Natalia and her grandfather is given special attention, but others, such as her grandfather’s relationship with the deathless man, are nicely etched as well. As might be imagined, given the number of interwoven plots, the cast of characters is rather large. Despite this fact, each character is given consideration and time to develop within the context of their place in the novel.
What made the book so stirring for me had nothing to do with plot, setting, characterization, etc. There is such quiet, unforced wisdom here, and it comes through not only in the things characters say, but in the way their very body language is portrayed. That such prose could come from a twenty-five year old author is nothing short of astounding. I wondered many times as I read if Ms. Obreht had a wonderfully wise grandfather of her own-and at her obvious ability to absorb his teachings.
My recommendation: Do not let the crazy sounding plot keep you away from this treat of a first novel! This is one which will stick with you and doubtless leave you waiting eagerly, along with the legion of fans that Téa Obreht is building, for her next offering.