Author: Téa Obreht
Format: Paperback (336 pages)
Synopsis: 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.
But Natalia is also confronting a mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s death. 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; 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.
The first thing I’ll say about this book is that it’s not the easiest to dip in and out of if you’re the kind of person who likes to read a chapter or two of a book at a time. The narrative shifts between chapters from Natalia describing present-day events, to her narrating her grandfather’s past and also some sections of her grandfather telling stories in the first person. It was a bit confusing at first, and initially quite frustrating as I wanted to stay with Natalia rather than keep delving into the past, but after about a quarter of the way through the book the narrative structure made sense for the overall story and I was happy to go along with it.
While Natalia searches for answers about her grandfather’s death, she recounts the events of his childhood in which he was obsessed with finding a tiger that was on the loose in and around his hometown. The tiger is portrayed as a wondrous mythical creature and I felt like I was chasing it through the book along with Natalia’s grandfather, but never quite catching it. I shared in his desire to understand the tiger and its relationship to ‘the tiger’s wife’ – a young woman from his youth who has an unusual connection to the animal.
The story is a strange mix of mythology, the supernatural and the cold, hard reality of war. The ‘deathless man’ was a very intriguing character who kept popping up in unexpected places to add to the mystery of the story. I was constantly questioning what was real and what wasn’t and I really enjoyed the conclusion to Natalia’s search which offered an interesting and imaginative answer to the mystery of death.
Obreht is a skilful writer, and although there were a few clichés in places and some initial issues with the narrative structure, the overall style and quality of the story is impressive, especially for someone who was only 25 when it was published. I look forward to reading any novels she writes in the future.
Overall Rating: My bookworm rating system is explained here.
Other Works by this Author: This is Obreht’s first novel.