En route to a rural orphanage with plans on inoculating a group of motherless local kids, 28-year-old Natalia gets the sudden, sad news that her grandfather, a well-respected doctor, has passed away. That he died far from home, in a village that appears on no map, raises several questions, in spite of the fact that the old man had been suffering from cancer. Natalia takes it upon herself to investigate the clinic he was last seen in, and collect his affects, while trying to fulfill her medical obligations to the orphans. A clear-eyed realist who came of age during the bloody dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, she is nonetheless enchanted by a story from her grandfather’s childhood, which is interwoven with the modern-day narrative. During World War II, his tiny hometown was menaced by a semi-tame tiger who had escaped from a zoo. According to legend, the animal was befriended by the butcher’s wife, a young deaf-mute who fed him meat. After her abusive husband disappears, the superstitious villagers suspect that the beast himself is the father of her unborn child, complicating life for the tiger as well as the girl, who happens to be Muslim. They send a famed hunter after the tiger, who, like the butcher, assumes an uncertain fate. In a timeless parallel, the modern-day villagers that Natalia is trying to help have a mystical tale of their own, and she is enlisted to help them find closure in a most unusual way. Haunted as it is by the specter of civil war, this confident debut steers clear of specific blame for any particular group, concentrating instead on the stories people tell themselves to explain the unthinkable. While at times a bit too dense and confusing, Obreht’s remarkable story showcases a young talent with a bright future.
A compassionate, mystical take on the real price of war.